Japan Times columnist Jeff Kingston’s “Nationalism in Asia” is as fortuitously timed as books come as the president-elect of the Philippines talks casually about assassinating journalists.

It’s primarily aimed at what Kingston calls the “Asian five,” the nations playing “the key role in how the world’s future plays out.” That means China, India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea, which collectively account for nearly 3 billion people, 40 percent of the world’s population, 25 percent of gross domestic product and more than their fair share of tensions between governments and the media.

But blusterous Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines is also doing his worst to prove why Asia is the most likely theater for the next global conflagration. “Nationalism,” writes Kingston, head of Asia studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus, “is ever in search of an enemy. As such, it is an abiding concern because it raises the risks of conflict, not just between nations, but also within nations.” This last point won’t be missed on those fearing Donald Trump’s media-bashing rise in a polarized America. It’s important to appreciate, though, how cowing journalists into self-censorship will hold Asia’s economies back in the long run.

Duterte doesn’t take office until June 30, but he already has the media aghast. The Philippines is one of the deadliest media markets anywhere, and not just among democracies (it barely ranks behind Syria). In the 30 years since Ferdinand Marcos left the scene, reports AFP, 174 journalists have been murdered in the Philippines, a nation of 100 million people and vital to the United States. So, it’s no small thing for a man about to inhabit the presidential palace to say journalists are fair game for execution. Making matters worse, Duterte is urging any Filipino with a gun to help whack criminals. Are reporters next?

Such bravado comes as economists debate what kind of reformer Duterte will be. Count Goldman Sachs among those believing this self-proclaimed tough guy will marshal huge change for the better. He’ll forego niceties and ram massive infrastructure projects, reductions in red tape and investments in education and agriculture through parliament, no matter what. “We believe that these proposals, provided they are successfully implemented, could further brighten our already positive macroeconomic outlook for the Philippines,” says Goldman’s Matthieu Droumaguet.

Yet Duterte’s shot across the media’s bow augers poorly for success. As the world learned from Benigno Aquino’s six years in office, implementation is everything. For a Philippine president to exact epochal change, he’ll need to upend the vested interests. Nothing accelerates this process faster than transparency. Voters and businesspeople can quibble about how much Aquino has achieved, but the Philippines is indisputably in a better place than in 2010.

Duterte’s war on the press isn’t unique in Asia. What he and leaders from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to China’s Xi Jinping miss, though, is that the press is an ally, not the enemy. It’s a point that resonates throughout Kingston’s 314-page book. While it tackles everything from conflicting national identities to why quibbles over history mar relations today to how hosting the Olympics advances political agendas (“Is sport,” he asks, “the new opium for the masses?”), the book proves that nothing good comes from muzzling media outlets.

“Precisely because nationalism is so useful to the state, it involves myth-making, selective memories and dubious interpretations,” Kingston writes. “Nationalism is so useful because it justifies state policies, endorses leaders’ aspirations and confers legitimacy on those who invoke it.” Among the “those” of which Kingston speaks are journalists who should be agitating for change, holding government accountable and policing wrongdoing and neglect.

It’s precisely because China is devoid of this dynamic that Xi’s reform drive is stuck in first gear, if not neutral. Because the press isn’t looking over his shoulder, because Xi’s odes to the wonders of Mao Zedong dominate headlines that ought to trumpet news of restructuring steps and corruption investigations, because mainland newspapers help fool households into buying stocks, Beijing isn’t modernizing the economy.

Japan’s own press censorship efforts come in for serious criticism in Kingston’s book, and rightfully so. With Abenomics distracting Japan’s 126 million people, Abe set about passing government secrets bills, installing cronies to run NHK and blowing dog whistles about “fair coverage” come election time. Not surprisingly, Japan’s standing in the 2016 Reporters Without Borders media-freedom index plunged 11 places to 71st, the second straight year of big declines. Abe’s efforts drew an embarrassing rebuke from David Kaye, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression.

Now, Kaye has Duterte in his crosshairs for warning Manila can’t protect reporters “if you disrespect a person.” “Justifying the killing of journalists on the basis of how they conduct their professional activities can be understood as a permissive signal to potential killers that the murder of journalists is acceptable in certain circumstances and would not be punished,” Kaye said. “This position is even more disturbing when one considers that the Philippines is still struggling to ensure accountability to notorious cases of violence against journalists.”

Duterte seems unbowed in ways that should worry Philippines bulls. Asian leaders, Kingston warns, “often find that unleashing the genie of nationalism is easier than getting it back into the bottle.” Without a free — and protected — media looking over leaders’ shoulders, those genies may run amok in ways global markets never expected.

William Pesek, executive editor of Barron’s Asia, writes on Asian economics, markets and politics. www.barronsasia.com

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