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Of Asia's strengths and weaknesses

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Asia has become a global titan with Japan and China having the world's second and third largest economies.  They both have immense foreign exchange reserves, substantially invested in US Treasury bonds.  Elsewhere in Asia, Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population, and also has a vibrant but fragile democracy with presidential elections coming up in a few days.


So it is not surprising that the new Obama administration shined its light first on Asia, rather than old Europe.  Japanese Prime Minister Aso was the first head of government to be received in Washington by Obama.  And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's first overseas trip was to East Asia, touching down first in Japan, followed by Indonesia and then China.

But were these events really a sign of Asia's preemminence in global affairs?  Or is it more a sign of Asia's weakness and fragility?

There is much strategic value in supporting Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono who has done a good job.  His re-election could help anchor democratic processes and market reforms in that country -- particularly at a time when it is being unfairly hit by the US-generated global financial crisis.

The US-China relationship is key.  There are no two other countries which have so many mutual interests and yet so many fundamental differences.  Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Central Bank Governor Zhou Xiaochuan have been doing some sabre-rattling regarding the vast Chinese foreign exchange reserves invested in the US. 

But as Paul Krugman recently suggested, the Chinese may be panicked by how much they have tied up in the US, and by the fact that these moneys are basically trapped there.  There is nowhere else to invest them, and if they did sell some, that would drive the dollar down, and devalue these Chinese assets.  A saying attributed to Keynes is also relevant, "If you owe your bank manager a thousand pounds, you are at his mercy.  If you owe him a million pounds, he is at your mercy".  And although China remains a communist country, it is very sensitive to its domestic public opinion which is incensed by the prospect of losing on Chinese investments in the US.         

Japan is a country that has lost its way following its miracle post-war economic development.  The recent massive crisis-induced fall in GDP confirms that the country has now suffered two lost decades.  Its population is ageing and declining.  And it is confused by its place on the world scene in light of the rise of its more assertive neighbour, China.

Adapting to these changes is all the more difficult for Japan in light of its arguably increasingly "psychologically dependent" relationship with the US.  Japanese psychiatrist Takeo Doi's concept of "amae" provides important insights into this.

Amae refers to the behaviour of a person attempting to induce an authority figure, such as parent, spouse, teacher or boss, to take care of him (indulgent dependency).  The behaviour of children towards their parents is perhaps the most common example of amae.  Child-rearing practices in the Western world seek to stop this kind of dependence in children, whereas in Japan it persists into adulthood in all kinds of social relationships. 

The amae syndrome is pervasive in Japanese life in part due to its still very hierarchical society.  It is assumed that stronger parties will be indulgent to weaker parties, and favour them without expecting a reciprocal obligation.  It is argued that Japan's relationship with the US is grounded in amae.  Japan asks of the US to be indulgent or lenient with Japan for the simple reason that the US is so much stronger than Japan, and it costs the US nothing in return.  Is this why President Obama acceded to Prime Minister's Aso's wish to be the first head of government to meet him officially.

If the thesis is really valid, it is a tragedy that a country like Japan should have been able to reach the pinnacle of international economic power, yet not be able to assert commensurate political power on the international stage.  But there is a simple long term solution -- Japanese mothers should stop spoiling their children so much, and make them grow up to be more self reliant!        


"The anatomy of dependence" by Takeo Doi (translated by John Bester).  Kodansha International.  2001.  www.kodansha-intl.com