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Big lessons for Japan and America from three small countries

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When Prince Akishino and his wife Princess Kiko visited Bankok late last month to attend the royal cremation of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, they joined representatives of nations large and small. Together, they all bid a final farewell to a monarch whose remarkable 70-year reign coincided with the transformation of a nation and a continent.

The destruction of World War II and that of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, as well as the tremendous economic troubles that once swept large parts of Asia starting in 1997 beginning in Thailand seemed a world away.

The story of Asia today is one driven by its largest nations and economies. A slow-growing Japan and an increasingly assertive China dominate headlines, as do the mounting tensions that continue to be a major focus of U.S. President Donald Trump’s ongoing visit to Asia.

Yet, three of the region’s smallest countries each offer up a lesson for all of “Asia rising” as well as for the United States and Japan.

First: environment matters. “Going green” is a phrase embraced for many years by both countries and companies — in words, if not action.

The small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan — 750,000 people in a nation of only 17,500 square kilometers — offers, however, an example that large nations can learn from.

Bhutan’s leaders have put conservation at the heart of their environmental agenda, pledging to keep the country carbon neutral and writing into their constitution the requirement that 60 percent of the nation must remain forested. Other initiatives include bans on plastic bags, restrictions on private vehicles in the capital Thimphu, and a commitment to become the world’s first 100 percent organic-farming nation.

Second, democracy must be nurtured. Another of Asia’s smallest countries, with 1.2 million people and 14,875 square kilometers, offers an example of how people can move forward post-conflict and take control of their own destinies, when given the chance.

The former Portuguese colony of Timor-Leste, also known as East Timor, this year held its first parliamentary elections administered without U.N. oversight since the country regained independence in 2002 from Indonesia. The results were a peaceful and powerful example to many nations, big and small, increasingly doubtful of the wisdom of entrusting their citizens with the power to vote.

While significant economic challenges continue, the people of this newest of Asian nations deserve praise as they progress from decades of conflict and centuries of colonialism. Timor-Leste was ranked first in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2016 for Southeast Asia and fifth in Asia, behind the well-established democracies of Japan, South Korea, India and Taiwan.

Third, rule of law powers business. The densely populated city-state of Singapore, 5.6 million people in an area of only 719 square kilometers, is a leading example of a small nation that thinks big — and succeeds big. With one of the highest GDP per capita in the world, Singapore showcases the economic benefits of transparency and the embrace of free markets and free trade.

Singapore has not reached global prosperity by conforming to “small-country guidelines” or “thinking small.” This prosperous “Lion City” is ranked the second easiest place in the world to do business in the World Bank’s just released Doing Business 2018 report, behind New Zealand, and the seventh least corrupt economy in the world according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2016.

As small fish in the big pond that is Asia, these three nations’ futures are by no means certain in a region that will continue to transform in the decades ahead.

According to United Nations estimates, India is on track to replace China as the world’s most populous nation. Wealth and inequality likely also will continue to grow across Asia, as will the risk of military conflict amidst competing demands for energy, water and other resources, including in the South China Sea.

As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump underscored in Tokyo, Japan and the U.S. share a vision for an Asia-Pacific that is both prosperous and at peace. Much though will depend on their actions and that of others, including China and North Korea.

Countries will continue to apply economic or military pressure to shape their smaller neighbors’ behaviors and policies — no different than today. Traditions will also endure in places such as Thailand and Japan, with their embrace of centuries-old traditions and institutions.

Asia and the Pacific, however, will be better off if all nations adopt some modern-day, “small-state ideas” offered up by Bhutan, Timor-Leste and Singapore — namely the embrace of a greener, more representative and more transparent future for all their citizens.

Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group LLC and the inaugural Asia Fellow of the Milken Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @CurtisSChin.