Asia’s Mojo Keeps on Working

BY Michael D. Mosettig  March 14, 2013 at 9:00 AM EDT


Shoppers in the Paragon mall in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images.

No matter how many Washington think tank conferences one covers, all their accumulated wisdom is no substitute for going to the countries they are talking about. In that spirit, I am back from a month in Asia — Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore and Jakarta, Indonesia.

The first headline, after my fourth trip to the region in four years: I am convinced more than ever that this is the place where, in the words of a tune from my relative youth, the world’s Mojo is working. The energy, dynamism and optimism are intensifying and infectious.

A second headline: China looms ever larger in the official and unofficial consciousness of the residents where I visited, and the United States seems to shrink in perceptions beyond the purview of foreign and defense ministries, embassies and think tanks. In Thailand, where for decades ethnic Chinese were required to take Thai names, people now will volunteer some pride in their Chinese heritage, and the Chinese New Year celebrations become increasingly large events. As one Ph.D. engineering student, an ethnic Chinese Malaysian studying in Singapore expressed it: “China is large, it has been large for us for thousands of years and will continue to be.” In contrast, the sentiment of one of Singapore’s leading public intellectuals, Kishore Mahbubani : a two-hundred year interlude of Western dominance over Asia is coming to an end.

A third headline: for a journalist who has closely tracked the peaceful evolution of post-Word War II Europe, the persistence of historic disputes and grievances in Asia is increasingly startling. Armed conflict remains unimaginable, but the political landscape is filled with landmines that could go off through accident or miscalculation, the flareup on the Korean peninsula the latest example.

Across Asia, hundreds of millions of people are rapidly moving out of poverty into middle class status, and they are all going shopping in sparkling, air conditioned malls that are becoming the landmarks and popular gathering places of the cities. In Hong Kong alone, nearly 40 million mainland tourists arrive each year and return home with bags stuffed with products from Hermes, Gucci and other top stores. (But when a group of expatriate businessmen in Hong Kong asked a noted China scholar how that former British colony’s liberal and westernized values might rub off on all those visitors, he replied: “Luis Vuitton is not Thomas Jefferson.”)

With traffic-jammed Jakarta a notable exception, hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested in infrastructure — subways, fast trains, highways, airports and water projects. Trillions more in public and private investment are projected in the coming decade.

Even politics cannot get in the way of economic dynamism. In Thailand, where a populist government rules in a tense stand-off with urban middle classes and three years after riots in the center of Bangkok, tourism is back, new office and apartment towers are sprouting, the growth rate is reaching six percent and the primary economic concern is about potential stock market and real estate bubbles. Indonesia is growing at a similar rapid clip more than a decade into its experiment in democracy and even though the current ruling party is going through internal upheavals a year before national elections.

While hundreds of millions still live below the poverty line, increasingly, the politics of the region are not of development but of managing middle class expectations and anger at corruption, pollution, inadequate housing and immigration. Even in Singapore’s benign autocracy, the government is losing parliamentary bye-elections, confronting its first public demonstrations in five decades and trying to stem anger over growing inequality and a government plan to add another million people, mostly foreigners, in a city-state of 5 million jammed into high rise apartment blocks, where flats on the private market are at Manhattan prices.

“People are getting increasingly frustrated,” said one Singapore academic. “A couple with two good salaries cannot afford the middle class life they would have in Australia and Canada with a car and a decent-sized apartment.” (Singapore’s efforts to hold down auto traffic include whopping fees that can easily drive the price of an ordinary new car to close to $100,000).

I found it telling that the comparison was drawn to Australia and Canada and the United States not mentioned. When I started traveling and working overseas in the 1960s, people were full of curiosity and eager to discuss and argue about politics, culture and life in the United States. I did not receive a single question about America from an unofficial Asian in my month of travel in the region.

Another sign of the diminished presence and allure of the United States: the students who still crave admittance to American universities are returning home in growing numbers after their degrees.Some also are finding it harder to get fellowship money from those universities for advanced studies. And then there are U.S. immigration laws. A frustrated U.S. corporate president at a meeting in Hong Kong said, “we should staple a green card on every diploma we award in America.” Job prospects look better for college grads, especially scientists and engineers, in their home countries. And even coming to the U.S. for professional conferences can be frustrating. My Malaysian interlocutor, though ethnic Chinese, goes through a grilling comparable to that for a Saudi citizen because he comes from a predominantly Muslim nation.

Whatever is being thought unofficially, on the government level, relations between the United States and Southeast Asian nations are as smooth as they have been since the Vietnam War. President Obama’s pivot to Asia has been welcomed by countries that want a balancing force alongside China in the region. a view enhanced by by China’s assertive stance in territorial disputes in the East and South China seas. But these are highly nuanced views. The overwhelming op-ed opinion and analysis in the English-language newspapers across the region was that the U.S. should restrain its friends and allies, especially Japan, that are involved in territorial issues with China.

Even in Indonesia, where the U.S. was the imperialist bogey for decades, Mr. Obama is personally popular, the first U.S. president who can speak some Indonesian street slang from his Jakarta boyhood. The 16th round of negotiations for a Trans Pacific Partnership comprising 11 Pacific nations, maybe to be joined by Japan, opened in early March in Singapore. But the prospects for a final deal before the Asian summit in October are far from certain and could unravel on issues from agriculture to intellectual property protection.

Whatever that outcome, this region already has weathered and rebounded from the financial crises of the late 1990s and 2008-09. As Mahbubani declares, “we have not reached Nirvana,” and new crises definitely will arise. But for the moment, this part of the world is asserting itself as dramatically as all those glittering skyscrapers filling its urban landscapes.

Michael D. Mosettig, PBS NewsHour foreign affairs and defense editor emeritus, watches wonks push policy in Washington’s multitude of think tanks. From time to time, he writes dispatches on what those scholars and wannabe secretaries of state have in mind for Europe, Asia and Latin America.