The head of a leading political risk research and consulting firm gives a tentative thumbs up to the Asian region – for now.
DESPITE THE VERBAL FISTICUFFSthat have characterized the Sino Japanese relationship in recent years, Ian Bremmer is feeling positive about the geopolitical situation in Asia at the moment. Longer term, however, he admits there is “massive uncertainty” in the region.
Bremmer, the founder and president of the Eurasia Group, spoke at the FCCJ on Oct. 14 on a broad range of issues encompassing geopolitics, the markets and the future of Asia and further afield. Given the crises the world faces with the spread of Ebola and the extremist preachings of the Islamic State in Syria, of ongoing economic problems in the Euro zone, the unresolved conflict in Ukraine and, arguably, a lack of leadership being demonstrated by President Barack Obama’s second administration team, perhaps it is not such a surprise that the Asia Pacific region seems relatively stress free. At least for the time being.
“The rise of China is something that everyone in Japan rightly understands to be a problem long term, but if you ask me, for the foreseeable future, I feel pretty good about geopolitics in Asia,” Bremmer said. And that optimism is in large part down to the relatively recent emergence of genuine leaders in the three most important countries in the region; Shinzo Abe, Xi Jinping in China and India’s Narendra Modi.
All three are “charismatic,” Bremmer said. All are promoting economic transformation in their respective nations and are experiencing some success with promoting change “on their terms, their time frames and according to their priorities.” “I won’t pretend that I’m optimistic long term . . . but I do believe that in the near term all of them would like to see more stability in their backyards,” he said.
The indications that Japan and China are attempting to rebuild bridges business delegations and envoys travelling back and forth, the increasing number of Chinese tourists to Japan, cultural exchanges are clearly in place, he said, although there remains a caveat. “None of this makes me say that Japan and China are going to be fine ad infinitum because if China’s domestic reforms do not work or they get pushed back and they start going down the nationalistic route, then things could get very ugly indeed,” he said. “There is still massive uncertainty.”
The flashpoint for China and the wider region remains Beijing’s territorial claims in the South and East China seas, he added. That is where China may have been given a slightly freer hand as Washington is embroiled in crises on other parts of the planet and sees no critical and immediate threat to its own interests.
Beijing’s policy has been to “press a little bit and see if we can change the status quo. But the operative term is “a little bit.”
“I don’t see China wanting to stir up massive geopolitical tensions anywhere just now,” Bremmer said. “I think they feel they over extended themselves on that front. A couple of years ago, at the start of the Obama administration, they ended up with a backlash that led to a lot of countries in the region embracing and supporting the U.S. more than China would have liked.”
Another factor in Beijing’s thinking will be the possible election of Hillary Clinton as the next president of the United States which China “desperately doesn’t want to see.”
“They don’t like her and they see her as a kind of architect of anti China containment,” he added.
Asked to assess the effectiveness of the Japanese prime minister’s “Abenomics” policies, Bremmer said that major economic redirection was necessary as Japan slipped from the world’s second largest economy to the number three spot.
“Japanese confidence needs to be more robust and they have to find ways to unlock the value that exists in spades in Japanese society,” he said. “The thing that excites me most about Abenomics has less to do with the central bank, but it’s things like bringing more women into the workforce. When 50 percent of your society is incredibly educated but fundamentally under employed, that is ludicrous.”
Bremmer also expressed optimism that Japan will overcome the reservations of some of its business sectors to sign up for the Trans Pacific Partnership free trade arrangement in 2015.
“Abe’s willingness to do this sort of thing, which no leaders before him were engaging with, requires a high level of political courage,” Bremmer said. “This sort of thing is not popular among the men who run Japan . . . and I think this sort of bold leadership matters.”
Bremmer’s discussion ranged far and wide across issues that are impacting the international situation. And although he agreed that the world faces plenty of major challenges, “we are not on the precipice of World War III,” he said.
“We face increasingly large numbers of geopolitical brushfires and when they get really big, countries get together to stamp on them,” said Bremmer, who has written nine books and whose organization is presently in 90 countries around the world.
“That is precisely because they are not viewed as a lot of risk to the global economy, whether that is Ebola in some of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, whether it is the Ukraine or the Middle East,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that the markets are not paying much attention.”
Julian Ryall is the Japan correspondent for the Daily Telegraph.