In 50 years, China will have a giant economy. Per capita, China’s GNP may still be about one-quarter to one-third that of the United States, but its total output and technological competence will make it a heavyweight.
By 2040, the combined domestic production of China and Japan will exceed that of America. These developments will shift the economic center of gravity of the world from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Already, U.S. trade with East Asia exceeds that with Western Europe. By 2050, the living standards of nearly 1.75 billion people in Northeast Asia will reach levels similar to those of present-day Japanese.
The high economic growth rates of East Asian countries in the last four decades were not fortuitous. They spring from the intense cultures of peoples keen to acquire new knowledge and master new technology. By 2050, the 600 million people of Southeast Asia will achieve about half the per capita income of Northeast Asia.
To meet the economic challenge of China’s attractiveness to foreign investments, the members of the Association of South East Asian Nations will have to combine their markets in an ASEAN Free Trade Area. It will be tough to compete against a homogeneous China with an economy that is likely to grow at between 7 and 9 percent per year. Hence the pressures on ASEAN countries to integrate their markets. Without this, they will be left out by international investors.
China will be a formidable player in the region. No combination of other East Asian economies – Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, ASEAN – will be able to balance it. Russia will not be a major player for at least another 20 years.
Therefore, the role of the United States as the balancer is crucial if Asian countries are to have elbow room for themselves. This need for America as a balancer is clear to South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia.
International loans and aid are helping to keep Indonesia going. But until Indonesian leaders themselves restore confidence both domestically and internationally, these can only be palliatives.
That said, any fallout from problems in Indonesia is minor compared with the consequences of a clash of arms across the Taiwan Strait. That could change the course of developments in the whole of the Asia-Pacific region. In Taiwan, with a new president whose party stands for independence, the danger has increased.
The Korean Peninsula now looks less likely to blow up, but reunification and peace are not at hand. It appears more like a protracted struggle. It is not in the interest of North Korea, nor of China, to have the North absorbed by the South. The North will use every leverage – missiles, nuclear proliferation, the danger of collapse – to extract concessions from the South and the United States, giving the minimum in exchange.
The writer is Singapore’s senior minister. This comment was adapted by the International Herald Tribune on 23 November 2000 from an address to the annual dinner of the Asia Society AustralAsia Center in Sydney on 20 November 2000.