Some questions I have about Asia?

Comments to the Asia Forum, 27 April 2004 by Colin James

Back in November when Farib Sos invited me to do this, I told him his invitation was misplaced. I know very little about Asia. I have been to Japan and Hong Kong four times briefly, most recently in each case late last year, spent a week in each of three South-east nations in 1982, a week in Indonesia and two days in Brunei in 1985 and 36 hours in New Delhi in 2001. I have never been to China the bureaucracy is too cumbersome for a journalist’s visa and so I rather doubt I shall ever go there. I have never written about foreign affairs except incidentally to my political commentary and have not worked the diplomatic circuit here. My connection with foreign affairs and with Asia is through my fossicking around in domestic affairs.

Accordingly, I am superbly UNqualified to talk about New Zealand and Asia. So I said to Farib that the best I could do was raise some questions for discussion and he agreed at least that way I could learn something. So I shall do that and if the questions are not worthy of discussion we can all have an early evening.

My questions are predicated on a 20-year time horizon: Asia in 2025.

Question 1: is New Zealand in Asia? The usual answer is no. But there are three senses in which maybe the answer is a sort of yes.

One is that as China asserts itself economically and strategically, we are likely to find ourselves in China’s sphere of influence. We are already, by our decision and by the United States’ decision, less firmly in the United States’ sphere of influence. Alternatively, of course, we may find ourselves in a tug of love with China and the United States, because we do have some minor strategic status in the South Pacific or a two-way one between China and India, as the apex of a triangle, or a three-way one with China, India and the United States.

The second possible yes is the benign trojan horse in our midst of Asian migrants and particularly ethnic-Chinese and ethnic-Indian migrants. They can and do connect with China and India and may draw us into one or both of those spheres over time. Chinese and Indians typically learn hard, work hard and save hard, qualities which indigenous New Zealanders (those born here) now lack witness the high level of foreign ownership of assets here. My own view for the past 15 years is that by the end of this century this country will be Asian, that the Chinese and Indians here will be highly influential economically and so probably politically.

A third possible yes, in diminuendo, hinges on trade agreements. If we develop closer trade links through trade agreements, that will draw us into Asia.

Question 2: What new or modified ideologies, forms of religion, social movements and political tendencies will develop in Asian societies? Till now European and Atlantic ideas have dominated discourse in this country and in most others. But that is likely to change as, because of trade ties and security issues we have to at least take note of ideas and movements emerging in Asia.

[A subsidiary point was made by an attender at the meeting: that Asia is developing its own way of handling security matters.]

Question 3: Will Asia be a force for scientific and technological innovation and change to match that of the Atlantic nations? If so, this could significantly change the economic environment in which we live.

Question 4: What role will China play over the next 20 years in Asia and the world? China is set to become economically, politically and militarily powerful unless its middle class pulls it to bits as it enriches itself and develops a taste for customised goods and services and lifestyle and for some sort of democracy.

Within this there are sub-questions: (1) How smoothly will China manage its economic development and transition to a version of Asian capitalism? (2) Can China develop a rule-of-law basis for its version of Asian capitalism? (3) How will the Communist Party respond to the inevitable middle-class demands for diversity and customisation. (4) How will the Communist Party manage the devolution of power and the transition to multi-choice voting? (5) Will China, in its dealings with smaller nations in and around Asia, revert to the imperialist treatment of its long past, treating its neighbours as modern vassals? Will it be expansionist whenever it sees economic necessity? Or will it be a nation among nations, albeit one with great power, as the United States usually is?

Question 5: What will happen to Taiwan? It surely could be the pretext for war if a hard-pressed regime in China or Washington chose at some time in the future.

Question 6: What happens in the China-Korea-Japan triangle? There are some fears in Japan of a Korea that sees itself as in the Chinese sphere and is maybe nuclear with it. Japan will retain its economic pre-eminence for a good while yet but China presents some huge uncertainties for Japan’s economic strategy both at the national and firm level.

[A subsidiary point was made by an attender at the meeting: that China, Korea and Japan may well form an economic grouping.]

Question 7: Where will India go? In population it is set to outstrip China. It has developed a place in the global IT industry. It is democratic (though its democracy is of an interesting brand). It has huge energy and a large middle class. Will India be an economic and strategic counterweight to China in a bipolar Asia?

A subsidiary question: Can Pakistan break out of its feudalistic bonds or will it remain a base for militant islam and terrorism?

Question 8: Will South-east Asia develop economic strength as a region? For the moment the divisions — in culture, religion, political style and economic organisation and development — seem far too great to allow the countries to form a region, let alone a European-style single market and political system.

Question 9: What will the United States’ response be to the rise of China and India? Will it redevelop its presence in north and south Asia? Will it compete for influence? Will it retreat? Will it turn protectionist against the Chinese and Indian economic challenges?

A subsidiary question: What if anything will Europe’s response be to the rise of China and India?

Question 10: Will the need to respond to the Asian challenge and opportunity divide New Zealand and Australia? In strategic perception we are already divided and have been since at least 1942; Australia sees Asia in part as a strategic threat and New Zealand doesn’t; that has led to sharply different perceptions of the strategic environment which is the principal generator of tension between Australia and New Zealand. As the two countries draw apart demographically this may intensify.

Question 11: What role will Asian nations play among the mini-states and micro-states of the South Pacific? Since I know nothing at all about the South Pacific, I have no thoughts at all about this.

Question 12: How might, or should, New Zealand, as a mini-state, respond to all of the above? How will New Zealand apportion its space as demand intensifies, given that “space to think” will be one of its strongest attractions to investors, entrepreneurs and corporations and “space to rest and recreate” will be a powerful attraction to crowded, rich Asians? How will New Zealand manage its marine, land and mineral resources as Asia grows hungrier for all three?

My stab at an answer to question 12, by way of a final comment, is that New Zealand will for most of the next 15 years or so see Asia more often as threat than opportunity before the Asian influence within takes over and exploits New Zealand as an island in the Asian sphere.