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Leadership in Asia under scrutiny

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Participants of the ASEAN Plus 3 Summit shake hands. (Photo: AAP)

In Brief

Leadership in Asia today confronts the 'most interesting of times'. The emerging powers of China, India and Indonesia face the twin challenges of unprecedented economic and social transformation, and crafting an approach to manage their new weight in the world, including expectations among the established powers in North America and Europe about how they should share the burdens of international leadership.


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The consequent tensions are most evident currently over territorial issues in the South China Sea, but there will be other problems.

Asian political systems, and political leadership, come in many shapes. Political dynasties, even in democratic polities, are a resilient feature. In Japan, Prime Minister Abe, with his three arrows, comes from a political line with impeccable conservative form. President Park in South Korea is the daughter of former President, Park Chung’hee. President Xi is a princeling of the Chinese revolution, set on a course of deep economic and political reform that apparently eschews overturning its authoritarian fundamentals. Modi and Jokowi are remarkable exceptions as outsiders — the directly-elected leaders of large democracies, trying to break out of the mould of past leadership style and substance. They face uphill battles in achieving their ambition for reform, while protecting their base of domestic political support.

Collectively these countries now account for close to half the world’s real economic power. Japan excepted, they lag in terms of military power and technology. How can they assume their proper role in running global and regional affairs? What new structures are needed to assist the transit of Asian power, if any? Can there be shared leadership in the region for the goal of common security and prosperity?

The sharp edge of this question is about the evolution of the relationship between the United States and China. Recognition that the status quo of US leadership is unlikely to endure is one thing; China’s replacing it without a revolution in its political system is equally unlikely. So what’s the way forward? Can like-minded middle powers help to shape a stable order or play a more effective balancing role?

Common problems such as terrorism, climate change, and questions about how best to achieve the benefits of trade and financial integration will need collective responses. This might be achieved through strengthening established regional frameworks such as APEC, the Asian Regional Forum, the ASEAN Community or the East Asia Summit although none of them seem up to all the tasks of regional collective economic and political action that Asia now needs to contemplate.

The absence of progress in strengthening the established multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF or the Asian Development Bank, means that the rise of alternative institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) are inevitably part of the agenda of Asia’s leadership.

These are the questions with which papers by World Bank managing director and former Indonesian finance minister, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, former Indonesian foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, and Singapore analyst, Kishore Mahbubani, among others, deal with from different perspectives in the latest issue of East Asia Forum Quarterly.

Mulyani observes that, with its economic success, Asia has come under increased scrutiny. The rest of the world now wants to know who sets the rules of the game in Asia. She argues that if the region is to embrace its new role in the world and to demonstrate its newly-acquired economic heft, ‘it needs to ensure that the rules of the game are developed within countries, across the region — and the world — rather than unilaterally by one leader, one nation or one group of regional powers’. Only this will guarantee Asia’s ongoing success.Importantly, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, made a strikingly similar point in conversation with a group of think tank leaders in Beijing on Friday.

Natalegawa re-confirms that experience within ASEAN and with ASEAN’s engagement of the Asia Pacific and East Asian region demonstrates that ‘leadership in a world of sovereign states must be earned and nurtured, not imposed at will’ however dominant a power might appear. What is required in diplomatic style is ‘quiet rather than megaphone diplomacy; an ability to master informal rather than formal channels of communication; and an emphasis on common rather than narrow interests’. Leadership in Asia demands the capacity to be forward-looking — to shape and mould — rather than just react to developments.

Mahbubani declares that the biggest contradiction in the world today is that ‘the demand for global leadership has never been greater but the supply seems to be diminishing… A supremely self-confident West designed global institutions to serve global interests, in the belief that the West would be the primary beneficiary of an open rules-based global order’. Confronted by the emerging powers in Asia and elsewhere, self-confidence ‘has been replaced by a nervous and increasingly insecure West’. This, he reckons, partly explains why the Doha round of trade negotiations stalled, reforms of the multilateral institutions recommended by the G20 are in limbo in US Congress and there has been a confused and resistant response from the United States to the rest of the world’s trying to fill some of the gaps. A classic example is the US response to China’s initiative to set up the AIIB. A simple statement of support from Washington for the laudable goals that the AIIB seeks to serve would indicate, Mahbubani reckons, that the world has finally turned the corner in creating new global institutions.

‘With Asia, Europe and — hopefully and eventually — America working together, rather than at cross-purposes, we may see the institutions of global governance strengthened’, he concludes, as they most sorely need to be.

This EAFQ’s Asian Review feature also deals with some hugely important and related issues: China’s corruption drive; normalising China–Japan security relations; and Jerome Cohen’s reflections on Lee Kuan Yew.

Peter Drysdale is Editor of the East Asia Forum.

One response to “Leadership in Asia under scrutiny”

  1. While the currently perceived and real lack of leadership in Asia, to a degree or in part, reflects the complexity and diversity of Asia and Asian countries, the most pivotal part underlying those, in my view, lies in the often difficult bilateral relations between China and Japan. They are the two largest economies in Asia, but they often do not see eye to eye with each other.
    When and if these two countries sort out their issues and problems so they can develop a relationship similar to that between Germany and France and Britain, many issues of Asia’s lack of leadership in the so called Asian century are likely to be resolved soon.
    Both countries need to make compromises for their common good/benefits. That requires true and courageous personal leadership from the top leaders among the two countries. They need to explain the benefits to their respective people and carry them with them to forge a new bilateral relationship and that is not an easy job.
    Japan may need to be really independent as opposed to be a US deputy in East Asia. China may need to embrace more of the good parts of the current global governance while at the same time to form a broad coalition to reform those areas that are no longer meet the current needs of developing and possibly many developed countries. In the process, major developing countries as a coalition, working together with most of the developed countries, can develop and design a new global governance structure.
    A constructive and cooperative relationship is developed between China and Japan, many of the existing issues in Asia will be much easier to resolve.

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