Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The budding Asia Pacific region sprints ahead

The Asia Pacific has been known as a quiet backwater in the past. For a long time it seemed all the interesting events occurred in Europe, elsewhere on the Eurasian landmass, or in the Americas. The Asia Pacific always existed but it was home to small economies separated from the centres of the world by thousands of wet kilometres.

Yet in spite of potential smoke on the horizon, the Asia Pacific is shifting the world’s centre of gravity as money, seeking legacy and glory, flocks  to the various budding economies in the region.

In the early 21st Century, the perception of the Asian backwater has definitely transformed. Gone are the days when the political machinations of the Indian subcontinent, steady economic growth in Malaysia, or the social grievances of the Chinese population might have slipped unnoticed through the headlines of the world’s news.

The truth is that the Asia Pacific region will boast an enormous percentage of humanity in the coming decades. And accompanying the expanding demography will be internal stresses and external belligerency as each burgeoning nation carves out areas of influence in their shared backyards.

While in comparison, the rest of the world staggers on at a tortoise’s pace.

Europe, potentially strong if they choose to stick together, is a shadow of its former self. The European Union and the structure of NATO should have tucked in the blankets around Europe, but important obstacles were immovable, and always were in hindsight.

The continent was set to enjoy an extended period of studied unremarkableness while the world carried on without them. But as the fa├žade dissolved in 2008 and old tensions, barley covered, rose to the surface, Europe has fragmented becoming less interested and less capable in dealing with the problems of the world.

In a similar vein, Russia is still a resource-based economy, a dangerous position for any country rely on. President Vladimir Putin’s blinkered focus is to diversify his country’s monomaniac economic portfolio. The world’s largest country involves itself in small but noticeable ways in effectively all Eurasian affairs, but Russia is far from a dominant political force and slips further from that podium with each passing year.

Africa and South America are nascent continents with great potential but unfavourable geography. Both regions will continue to grow in power as their individual nations learn to better leverage their vast demography and natural resources for maximum gain. Regional alliances in these continents are unlikely to dominate on the world stage, but the potential for positive growth remains high.

Still, by far the most changeable and dynamic of the world’s major regions is the Asia Pacific. The fastest growth and the fastest economies all come from this region, and they are only getting faster. Heavyweights like Japan, China, South Korea, and the United States consider the region their primary economic and political focal point for the coming century.

Nevertheless, the state of the Asia Pacific is a mix of worrisome stories and heartening tales.

For instance, tensions raged this week after a Taiwanese fisherman was shot and killed near disputed waters by the Philippine coast guard. Taipei issued a formal 72-hour ultimatum to Manila for an apology, which Philippine President Benigno Aquino offered on May 15. Taiwan’s aggressive stance against the Philippines reflects its weak ability to reinforce its territorial claims over the disputed waters.

China could use Taiwan’s spat to justify its own aggression in the South China Sea. Beijing has been looking for more reasons to increase its influence over those waters. However, many other nations, including the two in question above, claim contradicting territory rights in the congested Asian littoral seas, serving only to keep national strains alarmingly high.

Protesters burn Philippines flag in Taipei, Taiwan - (Image: Wally Santana/AP).
Further north, tensions on the Korean peninsula have certainly calmed since the boiling a few weeks ago. North Korea continues to issue rhetorical threats, but their patron in Beijing is losing patience. Several of China’s largest banks will cease all financial dealings with the North Korea Foreign Trade Bank in an effort to symbolically tighten the fraying leash tied to the belligerent hermetic state.

Few countries in the Asia Pacific region truthfully desire the swift collapse of the North Korean regime. The refugee crisis alone would dominate politics for months or even years. While China’s banking measures will probably not alter the situation, they do demonstrate to the world Beijing’s willingness to help with North Korea, rather than continually relying on American intervention.

Across the strait, Japan’s regional aspirations could take a stronger turn as a new Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) grouping is formalised. Tokyo’s new government is taking extra care to boost ties with its Asian neighbours to compete with a rising China. With a changing financial framework, Japan has an historic opportunity to push for greater leadership among ASEAN states.

Elsewhere, Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party is potentially looking to rebrand itself as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. As the country listens to popular debates and faces an invigorated regional environment, the ruling party is pondering ways to strengthen their legitimacy and better respond to territorial disputes and contested natural resource claims.

Even further south, following last week’s highly contested elections, recent news out of Malaysia appears to dampen fears of an economic downturn. Malaysia’s growth expanded year-on-year by 6.4 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012, up from 5.3 percent in the third quarter. Strong domestic investment and good financial policies will continue to shoot the South Asian country’s economy higher in the short to medium term.

These examples only scratch the surface of events in the Asia Pacific region. As economies inflate and demographics boom, the fault lines spreading like shattered frost throughout the region will become clearer.

Today a certain amount of natural economic interdependency created by globalisation and advances in technology keeps the region from exploding into fire. But those constraints are changing as national imperatives more and more take precedence over regional stability.

But despite the looming dangers, the Asia Pacific will continue to be a cosmopolitan region with huge potential for paradise for many decades to come.  

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