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Economic Dynamism and Political Fragility in Northeast Asia: Prospects for the 21st Century

Robert A. Scalapino

The central question facing all people and societies as we approach the 2lst century is at once simple and profound. How do we achieve domestic tranquility and constructive relations among nations in a time of global revolution? While in this article I focus on Northeast Asia, certain general trends affecting the world at large must be set forth at the outset to provide the necessary context.

Today we are experiencing the first revolution in human history that reaches every corner of the globe. At root, this revolution is the product of the accelerating advances in science and technology. While their impact has been uneven among individuals and societies, these advances have affected all aspects of human life: livelihood, lifestyle, sense of community, mobility, and basic values. Isolation is no longer possible. The pace of change has become incredibly swift. Materialism is increasingly the dominant feature of the modern and post-modern society, with leaders and governments judged largely by their capacity to deliver material benefits.

From these facts certain critical consequences flow. First, to an unprecedented extent, economics dominates both domestic and international affairs. Other elements are present, but in day-to-day relationships at all levels, material considerations are generally paramount. In this setting, the titanic struggle between socialism and a market-dominant economic system is over, and the market has won. To be sure, this does not mean that the state has been rendered unimportant. But the old faith in the state’s capacity to dominate the economic life of the society as planner and producer in monopolistic fashion has withered.

One vital question in this new era is whether market economiescoming from different cultural traditions, at different stages of development, and pursuing different economic strategiescan coexist harmoniously. This challenge has been rendered more complex because of the rapid rise of diverse forms of economic interdependencea trend rendering political boundaries increasingly porous. To this point, I shall later return.

A second basic consequence follows from economic developments. The appeal of ideology has declined. Political differencessome of them highly significantremain among states, but leaders everywhere are increasingly drawn to pragmatic, results-oriented policies irrespective of their proclaimed values. The great ideological battles of the early and mid-20th century are becoming distant memories. In one sense this is a positive development: the old ideological barriers to rational intercourse among and between peoples are gone, or have at least become less imposing. Yet the weakening capacity of the secular state to provide political values has left a vacuum that is being filled in some degree by others.