A self-confident Asia is charting its own course

A self-confident Asia is charting its own course

From India to Indonesia, Asian nations are becoming less reliant on the West. There is a new self-confidence emerging, as they offset their security interests with the US and their economic needs with China or Russia.

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Last Updated : 25 June 2024, 03:32 IST

By Karishma Vaswani

From India to Indonesia, Asian nations are becoming less reliant on the West. There is a new self-confidence emerging, as they offset their security interests with the US and their economic needs with China or Russia.

This is the theme of author and former UK diplomat Samir Puri’s new book, Westlessness: The Great Global Rebalancing, and it is a phenomenon those outside the region need to better understand.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s decision last week to declare his interest in Kuala Lumpur joining BRICS — the economic bloc co-founded in 2009 by Brazil, Russia, India and China and later South Africa — is a good example of that.

It expanded in January to include other “Global South” nations Iran, Ethiopia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. BRICS now represents 42 per cent of the world’s population and 36 per cent of global GDP.

Anwar pointed to the fact that BRICS has doubled in size this year, partly by offering access to financing, but also because these nations feel they can operate without having to kowtow to Washington or the West.

Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand are also considering joining. There are risks of course, given its potential irrelevance, and what seems like a misguided pursuit of a de-dollarisation strategy.

However, the bloc provides an alternative to Western-led institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund — an entity that is remembered less for its economic forecasts, and more for the painful austerity measures it imposed in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s.

While central banks in places like Indonesia and South Korea were no doubt responsible for much of their own problems, the sky-high interest rates the IMF insisted on squeezed the life out of their economies and decimated the middle class.

Growing up in Indonesia in the 1990s, I witnessed the fallout firsthand. One of my starkest memories is the infamous photo in 1998 of the then IMF Managing Director Michel Camdessus, standing with arms folded, towering above Indonesian President Suharto as he signed an unpopular bailout agreement.

It is the picture of a colonial master lording over his protectorate, a symbol of Western imperialism and heavy-handedness. Suharto’s 32-year dictatorship ended when he stepped down against a backdrop of street protests triggered by the economic chaos four months later.

The IMF has since acknowledged its mistakes. The spending cuts and painful reforms forced on Indonesia at the time crippled the economy, against the backdrop of rising discontent and political protests that threatened to tear the archipelago apart.

On a recent trip to Jakarta, a common refrain I heard from politicians and citizens alike was that Washington no longer calls the shots — but then, neither does Beijing, the new superpower in Asia that is now both biggest military threat and also one of the biggest customers to Jakarta and many of its neighbors.

This is a difficult balance to strike, but one that more Asian leaders are keen to display. Philippines President Ferdinand Marco Jr., speaking at a security summit in Singapore earlier this month, reflected this self-assuredness when he said: “We are the main characters in our collective story. We are the owners of the narratives of our regional community.”

This desire to make an Asia for Asians, without the overbearing influence of the West, is not new. In 1955, India’s then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Indonesia’s President Sukarno kicked off the Non-Aligned Movement at the Bandung Conference, named after the West Javanese city that hosted it. The idea was to give a role to developing nations in the face of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, as well as champion the decolonization of countries still under occupation.

Nations like India and Indonesia were shaking off the shackles of empire, infused with a desire to borrow some ideas from the West, but reject those they didn’t like. That meant keeping the Shakespeare and the ristajffel — both a meal and style of eating that can feature up to 40 Indonesian dishes that is a hangover from Dutch colonial times — but doing away with the blatant racism and condescension, hallmarks of the colonial era. The difference now, as Puri points out, is that it is accompanied by a shift in global power from the West to the East, most visible in China’s rise to the world’s second largest economy.

He notes that this is not an outright rejection of Western norms, but a move away from the era of undisputed Western global influence. “All of us alive today will be living through this era of transition,” he told me. “Asia is at the forefront of change, and it is unfair to only characterise this as fence-sitting, hedging or even flip-flopping.”

This is not to say Asia does not need the West, and in particular the US. But there is skepticism about the fallibility of Western values when it comes to democratic norms and commitments to international law, particularly in conflicts like the one between Israel and Hamas that has caused untold civilian suffering in Gaza; a sore point for many in the Global South.

The fence-sitting that Puri talks about is indicative of how the region is often seen as being torn between the US and China, unable to forge its own way beyond the two great superpower rivals. But this is a reductive a prism through which to view Asia. Increasingly, the region is charting its own course, just as it should.


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