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Strong leaders in an increasingly fragile Asia

by Simon Tay

Not long ago, Asians suffered weak governments. Japan stumbled through a series of short-lived and unpopular leaders, and in China, the last years under President Hu Jintao saw necessary reforms postponed. In India, after initially high hopes, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ended his term with more critics than fans. Much the same is being experienced by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who will soon leave office.

There were both political and economic costs as faltering leadership impacted investor confidence. Currency values and growth rates in both India and Indonesia tumbled last year. The wish was for stronger leaders who could deliver solutions.

Now this wish seems answered after one year-plus of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in, respectively, China and Japan as well as large wins for Narendra Modi in India and president-elect Joko Widodo in Indonesia. A lot of good could result.

But there are also dangers. Wish for strong leaders? A witticism may return to haunt the region: Be careful what you wish for, you may just get it.

First, however, the good news: The new leaders are keen on reform. China’s President Xi is undertaking difficult but necessary economic reform and moving against corruption. For Japan, the unorthodox policies of Abenomics stimulated growth that was almost unimaginable.

The exact policies of the new leaders in India and Indonesia remain to be seen. But expectations that they will initiate reform are high.

All four leaders go beyond economic policy. Each offers a transformational vision for his country and its place in the world. Each enjoys strong popular ratings that allow him ample scope to act boldly.

Yet such strong leadership can have costs.

Take the growing tension between China and Japan. While the dispute over the islands resurfaced before Abe took over, the situation has worsened. So far, neither Abe nor Xi appears anxious to patch things up. Indeed, each leader may gain nationalistic support back home by not giving way.

Abe moreover has taken the excuse to revisit the country’s pacifist constitution and question whether Japan can extend its security role in the region — an issue that is controversial even among the Japanese people. On its part, China has broadened the dispute by introducing an air defense identification zone that overlaps with zones claimed by Japan and South Korea.

With Southeast Asian neighbors too, Xi’s consolidation of power in China has not lessened frictions. On the contrary, there has been more assertive behavior, such as China’s unilateral step to begin drilling for oil in an area of the South China Sea disputed with Vietnam.

Strong leaders can destabilize a fragile region. The United States, for so long the inescapable and sometimes only leader in the region, has sought to adjust to the situation. President Barack Obama has reaffirmed alliance commitments and America’s rebalancing to the region, despite challenges elsewhere.

But although an American presence is needed, there are dangers if the Obama administration over-emphasizes the role of the military in the region. Some in Beijing already believe that the Americans might welcome Abe’s ambition for Japan to serve as a counterweight.

Tokyo’s efforts to support the Philippines and Vietnam are seen in this light and heighten the tensions. The already existing sense of U.S.-China competition is in danger of being taken to another level by a direct and visceral Sino-Japanese rivalry.

This complicates things for the new administrations in India and Indonesia, especially on foreign and security policies.

With New Delhi, the tradition is to remain nonaligned. But Modi has already received a visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and will next visit Tokyo. China and India do engage bilaterally and together with Brazil, Russia and South Africa in BRICS. But there are some in New Delhi who give more emphasis to competition with China, whether at sea or over disputed territories in their shared, high-mountain borders.

The new “Jokowi” administration in Indonesia will not take office until October and will not have much time before being swept up in regional meetings. These include the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit to be hosted by China, and the East Asian Summit (EAS), which is convened by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Current signs promise continuity with the internationalist outlook of the out-going administration.

There are, however, questions of nuance arising from the incoming president’s lack of foreign policy experience. Some also question how much Jakarta will assert its own and separate weight or else continue to be enmeshed within the regional group of ASEAN.

It would be good if Indonesia could continue to work within ASEAN, the group of small to medium sized countries, to maintain its central role in the region’s political and trade arrangements. The EAS, where all the major power participate, may especially need strengthening.

It would be ideal if India, under Modi, could deepen ties with ASEAN as a whole and perhaps with Indonesia on a bilateral basis. The ballast of these middle countries is needed.

Otherwise, as and when the giants assert themselves, ASEAN will struggle to remain united and relevant.

Asia used to suffer weak leadership even as stability was maintained for the most. Stronger Asian leaders are now in place and can deliver domestic reform and economic growth. But if these same leaders assert their strength in security and foreign relations against each other or vis-a-vis the U.S., regional stability could potentially be unbalanced and even upended.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) and the author of “Asia Alone” (Wiley 2010), which warns of power imbalances in the region after the global financial crisis.