Southeast Asia political & economic dynamics

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Rashid A Mughal

THE economy of Asia comprises more than 4.5 billion people (60% of the world population) living in 49 different nations. Asia is the fastest growing economic region as well as the largest continental economy by both GDP Nominal and Purchasing Power Parity in the world. Moreover, Asia is the site of some of the world’s longest modern economic booms, starting from the Japanese economic miracle (1950–1990), miracle on the Han River (1961–1996) in South Korea, economic boom (1978–2013) in China and economic boom in India (1991–present). Southeast Asia has an important place as a unit in the 21 century global order with region’s share in the global GDP touching $44 trillion as against $38 trillion of all Europe combined. Its share in the global economy has increased spectacularly within a short period of 25-30 years and led by China, is now a major economic juggernaut. In 2020 Asia’s GDP has overtaken the GDP of the rest of the world combined. By 2030, the region is expected to contribute roughly 60% of global growth. Asia-Pacific will also be responsible for the overwhelming majority (90%) of the 2.4 billion new members of the middle class entering the global economy.
But unfortunately Asia finds itself in a number of persisting problems and challenges like poverty, population, corruption, poor quality of education, disruptive political discourse, weak democratic governance, indiscipline, religious and ethnic tensions that impede it’s development along with rising income inequality, exclusion of women from political and economic life. Access to justice and respect for human rights are other issues confronting the region. Nevertheless, in spite of all these heavy odds the region continues to grow and is now a formidable economic engine and driver of global economy. The share of Asian countries’ exports in global exports rose from 12.3% in 1990 to 21.9% in 2008, and the share of their imports in global imports similarly rose from 12.0% to 19.4% during the same period. Mirroring the rise in East and Southeast Asia’s share of global trade, the region’s share of global gross domestic product (GDP) rose from 5.5% in 1990 to 12.3% in 2008. In short, developing Asia is a highly trade-dependent region, which has basically exported and traded its way out of typical Third World poverty to become one of the centres of gravity of the world economy. The bulk of that growth will come from the developing markets of China, India and throughout South-East Asia and it will give rise to a host of new decisions for businesses, governments and NGOs. The pressure will be on them to guide Asia’s development in a way that is equitable and designed to solve a host of social and economic problems.
What are the reasons of such spectacular rise of the region in such a short time? The destruction of both Communism and the (former) Soviet Union has profoundly changed the geopolitical environment of South Asia. It is a major change. Familiar landmarks created by the cold war have not merely disappeared, but what might replace those remains uncertain. What seems sure is the devolution of power and authority of the dead Soviet Union and, at least initially, the 15 Republican capitals will be the new power centres—on the assumption that new coup(s) would not re-establish an old-style-dictatorial regime over what was the Soviet Union. Interaction between the former Soviet Asian Republics and the States of South Asia (and others in Southern Asia) poses both new challenges and offers opportunities for South Asia. South Asia, almost coterminous with historical India, continues to have many unhappy distinctions: mass poverty with its attendant evils of ignorance, ill health and technological backwardness, territorial disputes among the major states of India and Pakistan, internal polarizations that threaten peace and integrity in almost each state, and the lack of mutual trust among its constituents. Of all the regions, South Asia happens to be rather well defined geographically, historically and thus geopolitically. Its internal divisions, deep mistrust among its states and internal incoherence within its larger states have prevented the region from realizing its potential of economic progress, political influence and the cultural enrichment of its teeming millions. It is true that, ultimately, internal drives and passions would very largely shape its fortunes. But this unique juncture may make the external environment a crucially important factor. The external situation can clearly pose dangers as well as present attractive possibilities for forging useful new links with new central Asian entities for the common good. Well-known internal divisions within South Asia need no emphasis. Briefest of mention should suffice and that, too, for showing what may prevent or facilitate the exploitation of new possibilities. Grave trouble spots lie among the long Indo Pakistan borders, extending into Kashmir’s Line of Control (LoC). Two large armies, both fairly well equipped, face each other menacingly. The old Kashmir dispute, that had spawned three wars, has, after years of relative quiet, again exploded into a new crisis. A clash between the two armies is being postponed almost daily, through mainly American good offices. Indeed, the Kashmir dispute has given birth, over the years, to several sub-disputes: the Siachin Glacier that has become the world’s highest battlefield (between 14 000 and 21 000 feet above sea level) and Simli, Sallal, and, not least, the Indian Punjab.
Ill-will between India and Pakistan is not restricted to specific disputed territories like Kashmir. Internal polarizations in each country also have a tendency to involve the other, a tendency also found in other regional States. Thus Indian Punjab’s Hindu—Sikh polarity has graduated into an Indo-Pakistan quarrel, with India alleging that Pakistan is aiding and abetting the Sikh militants just as it is alleged to be extending moral and material support to the Kashmiri insurgents across the LoC. In both countries domestic political troubles tend to spill over and add to the unresolved agenda between them. Thanks to the region’s geography and demography, most inter-state disputes take the shape of a series of bilateral disagreements with India. Also, the phenomenon of internal polarizations graduating into international disputes is not confined to Pakistan and India. The ethnic divide in Sri Lanka has long had an Indian dimension.
— The writer is former DG (Emigration) and consultant ILO, IOM.

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