Dateline Colombo

Asia Pacific: Reset for Qualitative Change

03 Jun, 2014    ·   4487

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera urges world leaders to improve points of intersection between countries, instead of focusing on internal boundaries

Permeated by many turbulent events in May 2014, East Asia served as the milieu for events from the coup d'état in Thailand, to maritime cooperation for the Indonesia-Vietnam boundary between President Susilo and the Prime Minister of Vietnam, all on the backdrop of the World Economic Forum in East Asia in Manila. Indonesia, the largest Muslim democracy in Southeast Asia, was at the center stage. During the forum, outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono received the Statesmanship Award, and many of his achievements during his decade of Presidency were discussed. During his speech, President Susilo made direct reference to China regarding the East China Sea emphasising that “…any disputes including maritime border tension can be resolved peacefully - not with the use of military might which [may] endanger stability and peace in our region.”

East Asia, with a population of 600 million, which is roughly double the size of the US, is planning to build a US$4.3 trillion economy with a single market in the next several years. The challenges to achieve these targets, however, are many. The infrastructure to link many ASEAN countries is weak, poverty rates are high, and rates of corruption are staggering. It is important to move away from the present culture of high corruption, to a better culture that fosters development of regional framework to fight corruption. Countries should not confine to their own boundaries but work collaboratively. The point of intersection between countries has to be improved. President Benigno Aquino in his remarks stated his leadership to introduce good governance to Philippines to dismantle corruption is commendable with the improving positive economic indicators.

In the Eurasian region, a Sino-Russian partnership for US$400 billion for energy for the next three decades has been signed, and the sophisticated Russian military missile system has been given to the Chinese government. There are signs of China and Russia moving towards a strategic relationship in the very near future.

There is now a tripolar world with US, Russia, and China in the new equation. The Maritime Silk Road (MSR) to the South China Sea, disputes with Japan, and the placement of a Chinese oil rig in Vietnamese waters, are a few of the events that have raised many eyebrows.

According to geopolitical analyst Robert Kaplan, “This is a region that’s going to be on the boil for years and years to come. Seas crowded with warships, submarines, merchant shipping, fifth generation fighter jets – that can easily create incidents that in turn could enable a crisis.” In Seoul during his Asia visit, President Obama said that China “has to abide by certain norms” when it comes to its quarrels with neighbours. With all the notable events that have taken place in this part of the region, the US pivot to Southeast Asia cannot be negated.

In India, Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been sworn in as the new Prime Minister. The Indian public believes that he can deliver rapid growth in the country as he did in his 13-year tenure as Chief Minister of Gujrat. However, India has many internal challenges to consider first. Nearly half the country’s households lack basic access to electricity. Modern infrastructure is underdeveloped. Creation of job opportunities through a large manufacturing sector, especially for its young population aged 15-34 – which is around 400 million people making up one-third of the population – amidst rising corruption, is an obstacle. These are some of the major challenges for the new government. The question is, does India need a total reset on its many internal and external challenges?

Sri Lanka, with whom India’s has had a love affair since the days of the Mahabharata, always sends a tiny ripple towards India. A line in an Indian newspaper before the Geneva HR Council vote on Sri Lanka was, “Will Ceylon become a Cyclone to India?” The Sri Lankan President’s visit for the swearing-in ceremony created certain political turmoil in South India and Sri Lanka’s Northern Province Chief Minister Vigneswaran. Despite the stormy atmosphere, both leaders, PM Modi and President Rajapaksa, held successful talks as both possess high resilience levels when facing challenges. Hopefully, an improved and stronger relationship between both countries is on the cards in the coming years, not cyclones.

All of these episodes, however, have failed to address one fundamental issue: bringing qualitative change to the people living around the world. How can one thrive in a world where 1 billion people go to bed hungry each night? Can progress be made in a global community where 1.2 billion of the poorest people on the planet account for just 1 per cent of global consumption? 1 billion people are without food and 1 billion who are obese. 85 of the richest people in the world have as much wealth as 3.5 billion of the poorest. The inequality gap is widening every day. So, is a world of 9 billion people to be catered to in the future? This is a topic that should be looked at seriously. World leaders must look to improve points of intersection between countries, rather than focus on internal boundaries with nationalism or hubris. Does every country need to reset its strategies to bring that qualitative change?