"America Is Losing Influence in Asia."
Definitely not. Bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and mired in a deep recession, the United States certainly looks like a superpower in decline. Its influence in Asia has apparently receded as well, with the formerly mighty dollar in less demand than the Chinese yuan and the North Korean regime openly flaunting Washington's will. But it is premature to declare the end of U.S. geopolitical preeminence in Asia. In all likelihood, the self-correcting mechanisms in its political and economic systems will enable the United States to recover from its current setbacks.
America's leadership in Asia derives from many sources, not just its military or economic heft. Like beauty, a country's geopolitical influence is often in the eye of the beholder. Although some view the United States' declining influence in Asia as a fact, many Asians think otherwise. Sixty-nine percent of Chinese, 75 percent of Indonesians, 76 percent of South Koreans, and 79 percent of Japanese in the Chicago Council's surveys said that U.S. influence in Asia had risen over the past decade.
Another, perhaps more important, reason for the enduring American preeminence in Asia is that most countries in the region welcome Washington as the guarantor of Asia's peace. Asian elites from New Delhi to Tokyo continue to count on Uncle Sam to keep a watchful eye on Beijing.
Whether it's over blown or not, Asia is poised to increase its geopolitical and economic influence rapidly in the decades to come. It has already become one of the pillars of the international order. But in thinking about Asia's future, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Its economic ascent is not written in the stars. And given the cultural differences and history of intense rivalry among the region's countries, Asia is unlikely to achieve any degree of regional political unity and evolve into an EU-like entity in our lifetime. Henry Kissinger once famously asked, "Who do I call if I want to call Europe?" We can ask the same question about Asia.
All told, Asia's rise should present more opportunities than threats. The region's growth not only has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, but also will increase demand for Western products. Its internal fissures will allow the United States to check the geopolitical influence of potential rivals such as China and Russia with manageable costs and risks. And hopefully, Asia's rise will provide the competitive pressures urgently needed for Westerners to get their own houses in order—without succumbing to hype or hysteria.
"The Next Asian Miracle"
You might be tempted to conclude that the better-performing country is authoritarian China and the laggard is democratic India. In reality, the faster-growing country is India, and the laggard is the occasionally autocratic Pakistan. This fact certainly belies the commonly held notion that—especially among Asian countries—authoritarian states have an advantage in growing an economy compared with their democratic counterparts, who are forced to reckon with such pesky trappings as labor standards and political compromises.
But surely, the familiar China-India comparison would support an authoritarian edge, right? The conclusion seems so obvious: China is authoritarian, and it has grown faster; India is democratic, and it has grown more slowly. For years, Indians have defended their democracy with a sheepish apology—“Yes, our growth rate is terrible, but low growth rates are an acceptable price to pay to govern a democracy as large and as diverse as India.”
There is no need to apologize now. India has ended the infamous 2 to 3 percent annual “Hindu rate” of growth and begun its own economic takeoff. Recent Indian success is not only impressive in terms of its speed—growing at the “East Asian rate” of 8 to 9 percent a year—but also in terms of its depth and breadth. The Indian miracle is no longer confined to the much vaunted information-technology sector; its manufacturing is taking off. Even the historically lackluster agricultural sector is beginning to grow.
So where does this leave the “authoritarian edge” that China’s economy has supposedly enjoyed for years? The emerging Indian miracle should debunk—hopefully permanently—the entirely specious notion that democracy is bad for growth. And the emerging Indian miracle holds substantial implications for China’s political future. As Chinese political elites mark the 30th anniversary of economic reforms this year, they should reflect on the Indian experience deeply and absorb the real reason behind their own miracle.
The idea that there is a trade-off between economics and politics is ingrained in the minds of many policymakers and business executives in Asia, as well as the West. But that idea has never been systematically proven. If India, with its noisy, chaotic, and lumbering political arrangements, can grow, then no other poor country must face a Faustian choice between growth and democracy. A deeper look at the two countries shows that they have succeeded and failed at different times for remarkably similar reasons. Their economies performed when their politics turned liberal; their performances faltered when their politics slid backward. Now, as many poor countries grapple with similar political and economic choices, we must understand this dynamic. It is high time to get the China-India story right.
INDIA’S UNTOLD HISTORY
That story doesn’t begin in 2008. It’s a horse race that goes back decades, and one that tells us much about the relationship between democracy and growth, governance and prosperity. From an economic perspective, it is not the static state of a political system that matters, but how it has evolved. The growth India enjoys today sped up in the 1990s as the country privatized TV stations, introduced political decentralization, and improved governance. And contrary to the conventional wisdom, India stagnated historically not because it was a democracy, but because, in the 1970s and 1980s, it was less democratic than it appeared. To understand just what is happening in India’s economy today—and how it relates to the country’s political system—we must travel as far back as the 1950s.
Many scholars blame India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, for adopting a development strategy that caused India to stagnate from 1950 to 1990. But this view is unfair to Nehru, and it shifts the blame from the real culprit—Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter and prime minister during much of the period from 1966 to 1984. Nehru’s commanding-heights approach was the reigning ideology in many developing countries, some of which, like South Korea, were quite successful. The issue is not how harmful Nehru’s economic policies were, but why India intensified and persisted in this model when it was clearly not working. To answer this question we have to understand the lasting damage that Indira Gandhi inflicted on Indian democracy.
Patronage became her electoral strategy as she undermined a vital institution in a functioning democracy—the party system. Gandhi weakened the Congress Party, once a proud catalyst of the independence movement, by sidestepping many of its well-established procedures, reducing its grass-roots reach in the states, and appointing party officials rather than allowing rank-and-file members to elect them. The shriveling of the Congress Party meant that Gandhi had to use other means to get reelected: crushing political opposition, pandering to special interests, or offering political handouts.
Or cancellations of elections altogether. Indira Gandhi imposed emergency rule in June 1975 and cancelled the general election scheduled for the following year. It was no isolated event. As early as 1970, she postponed or cancelled Congress Party elections. In addition, she moved very far to replace federalism with her own centralized rule. One telling statistic, as shown by political scientists Amal Ray and John Kincaid, is that between 1966 and 1976 the Gandhi government invoked Article 356 of the constitution—which empowers the federal government to take over the functions of state governments in emergency situations—36 times. The government of Nehru and his successor (1950–65) resorted to this measure only nine times. From 1980 to 1984, she invoked this power an additional 13 times. The misuse of the extraordinary power vested in the executive damaged an important institution of Indian democracy.
The cumulative effect of Gandhi’s actions is that the Indian political system, though still retaining some essential features of a democracy, became unaccountable, corrupt, and unhinged from the normal bench marks voters use to assess their leaders. In a functioning democracy, voters punish those politicians who fail to deliver at the ballot box. Not in India. Both the 1967 and 1971 reelections of the Congress Party followed a decline of per capita GDP the year before. It was not democracy that failed India; it was India that failed democracy.
The economic consequences of this period of illiberalism were long lasting. Because Gandhi’s political fortunes depended on patronage, she felt no compulsion to invest in real drivers of economic growth—education and health. The ratio of teachers to primary-school students throughout the long Gandhi years stubbornly hovered around 2 percent. After her rule, in 1985, only 18 percent of Indian children were immunized against diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus (DPT), and only 1 percent were immunized against measles. Even today, India is still paying for her neglect. The low level of human capital remains the single largest obstacle to that country’s developmental prospects.
The good news is that India is shedding this harmful legacy. As Indian politics became more open and accountable, the post-Gandhi governments began to put welfare of the people at the top of the policy agenda. For example, the adult literacy rate increased from 49 percent in 1990 to 61 percent in 2006. In due time, these social investments will translate into real dividends.
p/s photos: Huang Sheng Yi