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A case of the four overlapping Asias

A case of the four overlapping Asias

Four 'Asias' may be brewing, according to Johathan Woetzel and Jeongmin of the McKinsey Global Institute. Common to all of them is economic growth, but what distinguish them, in addition to their developmental stages, is also the 'connectivity' opportunities currently emanating. Accordingly, the first is China's alone, the continent's (indeed, steadily becoming the world's) 'anchor economy', while the fourth, India, heralds the 'frontier' Asia. Whereas the former has become the 'connectivity' engine, the latter is crippled by the lowest intra-regional glows (only 31 per cent), representing, as it does, the sprawling colonial leftovers of Great Britain, sprinkled across a vast expanse, from the Bay of Bengal to the Mediterranean, but not in one geographical line. In between lie the 'Advanced Asia' group, registering over 50 per cent of total regional foreign direct investment flows, with Japan and South Korea as members, and the third cluster, 'Emerging Asia', mostly the highly integrated Southeast Asian countries, boasting the continent's highest  intra-regional flows, of 79 per cent.

Parag Khanna's Asian Century is built upon these differential lines. What makes these differences so crucial to his Asian Century is that they are complementary and capable of producing a 'flying geese' formation, that is, the capacities and experiences of passing industrial knowhow down from the most developed to those at the lesser end. This has been a part of Asia's 20th century evolution (as discussed in the previous Scopus article in this newspaper, on October 15), beginning with Japan, then shifting westwards to South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Singapore, thence to Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, before Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Myanmar, among others, enter the picture.

Yet, it is also the complementary component that makes noise. Beginning with Japan down to China today, with particularly South Korea in between, we have seen the flow of development assistance and funding, something even the 'Fourth Asia' leader, India, is getting into today. Among the first to touch Bangladesh was Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), from 1972, with the first Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) loan from Japan in 1974. Ever since, Japan has financed over 300 bridges in the country, including the Jamuna Bridge, in addition to other community-anchored projects, like the Tangail Participatory Rural Development programme (the 'Link Model') to improve local government accountability, the Safe Motherhood Promotion Project ('Narshingdi Model') to promote maternal health, all the way down to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's May 2015 visit producing the Japan-Bangladesh Comprehensive Partnership. Embedded here was a project of enormous contemporary importance, the Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (BIG-B) Initiative to which one might also add the Matarbari energy facilities Japan has been building.

The last item parallels China's most recent surge in developmental assistance. Its equivalent, and beyond, is the Belt Road Initiative (BRI), with passages being earmarked to make the Bay of Bengal-China link more efficient and safe than the Straits of Malacca route. Of course, other countries will also have to be inducted, especially India, but this illustrates precisely the connectivity issue alluded to previously. BIG-B's three pillars (industry and trade; energy; and transportation) also serve as connectivity multipliers, and breakthroughs have been made particularly through China's BRI network, both on land and across seas and ocean. It is certainly because of these that the Indian Ocean today stands at the heart of global geopolitical considerations, just like the Atlantic Ocean did for most of the second half of the 20th century. We hear new geopolitical terms, like the Indo-Pacific, while such new arenas as South China Sea have also commanded greater attention.

What we see is Bangladesh engaging 'Second Asia' as intricately as it is its top two trade partners, China and India, respectively, or in the language of this article, 'First Asia' and 'Fourth Asia', respectively. With Japan playing as much of an 'anchor' economic partner to streamline a 'frontier' Asian country, differences between the 'four Asias' melt, but a long-term Asian integration possibility increases. This is quite a reminder of how the European Union (EU) also moved, from smaller compacts to where it is now over five-odd decades, for example the 6-member European Economic Community in the 1960s to the 27-member post-Brexit EU body.

At stake for Asian development is energy supply access. Both China and India depend heavily on petroleum, that too from another Asian corner, while Japan's critical dependence on this commodity is all too well known from the 1974 price-hikes. Connecting industrial growth arenas with energy supply zones may have driven this integrative goal across Asia, but given all the political tensions and conflicts between many neighbouring countries, this has not been progressing as efficiently as one would like. The Saudi petroleum facility bombed last month is a reminder of the slippery slope Asia stands upon, but also how China, for example, is helping bridge antagonist countries, for example, across the Middle East, and between South Asian countries.

Yet it is industrial growth that has pushed low-wage Asia into the economic sun today. Not only has production multiplied over the last generation, but the huge resources accumulated have fed other types of connectivity: tourism, for example, has boomed, not just with Chinese, but many previously impoverished countries. Bangladesh now has citizens travelling, even living or doing business in many other Asian countries. South Asia's Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) Highway exemplifies how feeding the noticeable surge of Bangladeshis visiting India for medical treatment, or as a tourist to Bhutan and Nepal, in addition to India, illustrates a broader Asian pattern demanding immediate infrastructural attention. What this BBIN case also highlights is how the multiplication of visitors and tourists across Asia propped up protection of many sites. For such reasons and repair, some close for a long spell of time, something never experienced before. Who would have believed such possibilities when the Vietnam War militarised entire regions and, indeed, passport controls were far stricter and visas rarely given.

At the same time, though, tension between the 'First Asia' and 'Fourth Asia' may further stimulate complementarities (even outside of Asia, such as with military pacts, like the QUAD), and  connectivity cases. China's emergence has propelled Japan to also branch out across Asia, if not to find secure allies, like India, but to also use Asia as a stepping-stone to Africa, the continent foreign countries still target for its umpteen resources. India, likewise, has its Act East policy approach, targeting Vietnam as the endpoint. Indeed, all of the key players, whether in the First and Fourth, or Second and Third, have to look abroad, in turn, inviting a plethora of non-Asian players from governments to corporations, for transactions of sorts. These have also accelerated Asia's integration potentials.

In short, Asia stands with all the credentials of being the planet's fulcrum today, not because of its size and population, per se, nor too for its mineral resources, but because it has markets, seeks markets, and supplies labour and low-waged products all over the world, while also using them at home for off-shore factories of other high-wage countries. Surely all of these must combine to project a very dynamic region whose time only had to come.

This does not iron away all the tensions and suspicions, not to mention conflicts raging, particularly in the Middle East. Yet, what is different this time is simply that instead of these tensions, suspicions, and conflicts either feeding into or being exploited by non-Asians, the connectivity and complementarity-driven Asians might produce a different result.


Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at  Independent University, Bangladesh.


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