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Stars align for ambitious Asian leaders

Uncertain and cynical West provides opportunity for Beijing, New Delhi and Tokyo

After some years of stability, major powers in Asia are approaching an inflection point which could secure their ascent in international affairs. In contrast with the U.S. and Europe, where ideological polarization and fragmentation are resulting in divided societies and inward-looking states, a steady shift of power and prestige from West to East is accelerating due to their diverging trajectories.

What separates the gloomy and despondent West from an optimistic and buoyant Asia is the contrast in their domestic political and economic situations. Britain's decision to exit the European Union, the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president and the alarming rise of far-right populism and anti-globalization forces in continental Europe speak of a descent of the West into self-doubt, internal strife and institutional disarray.

Juxtaposed with these epic signs of decay is what many regional analysts see as the upward mobility and continuity of the social contracts and policy making apparatus in China, Japan and India.

Xi to the fore

The consolidation of domestic political power by Chinese president and "core leader" Xi Jinping suggests further entrenchment and expansion for Asia's number one power. Absolute centralization of decision-making levers in Xi's hands, and rumors that he may dispense with a two-decade-old tradition in the Chinese Communist Party of remitting office after 10 years, imply a long era under this strongman. After ruthlessly demolishing rival factions in the CCP and cracking down on domestic dissent, Xi is at the pinnacle of his career with no end in sight.

China's economy is not out of the woods, but Xi is spearheading a recovery from the slowdown of the last couple of years. The country's debt pile, which the Chinese state has ramped up with every cyclical dip in economic fortunes, could still rock the boat. However, Xi is walking with a new self-confidence that China under him can replace a sullen and confused U.S., led by a neophyte and controversial president, as the flagbearer of globalization, trade and multilateral institutional management of international issues.

Xi's decision to attend for the first time the World Economic Forum currently taking place in Davos carries an unmistakable message, that China sees itself as leading the world order, while the U.S. after President Barack Obama's presidency will be riven by turmoil and the absence of a coherent international strategy.  

The Chinese president's remarks in his Tuesday keynote speech at Davos, pledging to keep his nation's doors "wide open" and likening protectionism to "locking oneself in a dark room," were clear jabs at Trump's transactional attitude and anti-trade rhetoric. In response, China's state-owned news media went as far as to declare a "new round of globalization with a very heavy Chinese mark." 

To distinguish himself from his politically incorrect American counterpart, who routinely taunts and irks several countries, Xi is marketing himself as the indispensable leader for promoting international cooperation and stability.  

Close on Xi's heels in staking a place for stewardship of the international community is Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Halfway through his first term, he remains unrivalled in India's domestic political theater. Not even a risky measure like the currency demonetization, which caused ripples across the nation, has eroded his popularity at the national level in India.  Modi's penchant for unanticipated "big bang" economic reforms and bold foreign policy moves such as "surgical strikes" against Pakistan suggest that he too is a player for the long run, like Xi.

No one can take India's fickle electorate for granted, but Modi is sufficiently ensconced in domestic politics to play a bigger role in the international climate change regime, the global fight against terrorism and the promotion of regional connectivity for trade and commerce. With the U.S. and the Europeans trapped in a narrow tunnel marked by culture wars, racism and rejection of the free movement of goods and people, Modi's projection of India as the "fastest growing, most open economy in the world" aims to appeal to investors and give India prominence as a facilitator and builder rather than a disrupter of global governance.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is not far behind Xi and Modi in entering 2017 with no domestic opposition worth mentioning. Having won re-election resoundingly in 2016, he is on course to become the longest-serving Japanese leader since World War II. His brand of muscular conservatism, coupled with a reassertion of Japan's role as a military power, is set to last and will make him a defining player in international security and geopolitics.

Abe's symbolic visit of atonement to Pearl Harbor and his attempts to coax Russia to settle the Kuril Islands dispute are indicators that he is comfortable enough to pursue policy departures previously considered unthinkable in Japan's constrained and cautious political environment.

Navigating minefields

Although all three of Asia's titans -- China, Japan and India -- appear relatively predictable and vigorous in comparison with a troubled and turbulent West, the former do have to navigate minefields that are byproducts of their innate and increasing strength.

Regional enmities and tensions show no sign of dissipating, with three strong competitors for influence or control over overlapping land and maritime spaces. The explicit truculence in the incoming Trump administration toward China indicates that Xi will run into an American wall as he tries to expand his Belt and Road Initiative and naval power projection blueprints.

Obama's "pivot" to Asia may have underachieved, but Beijing is apprehensive that Trump will be far more aggressive. Saber-rattling by Trump's Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson that China should be physically blocked from accessing its occupied reefs and islets in the South China Sea portends heightened cat-and-mouse games that can send militaries scrambling and markets crashing.   

Abe's pre-emptive outreach to Trump shortly after his election victory and Modi's expectations of isolating China's "all-weather-ally" Pakistan with Trump's support will put pressure on Xi as he chases the goals of Asian and global supremacy.

Flashpoints like North Korea, Taiwan and Afghanistan are likely to smolder further under the weight of this pressure on China and its allies. These hotspots will test not just Xi's ambitions but also Modi's aspirations and Abe's push to reclaim Japan's prominence.

Another megatrend that challenges Asia's top three leaders as they look ahead is the issue of fundamental economic transformation. Endowed with almost total pre-eminence in their domestic political arenas, they have the capability to fight vested interests such as state-owned enterprises, family-run conglomerates and crony capitalists who are undermining competition, harming consumers and damaging the environment.

If Xi, Modi and Abe wish to preclude fates similar to that which has befallen South Korea's impeached President Park Geun-hye, there is no alternative but to reform their houses substantially. Of course, the protectionist winds that have overtaken the U.S. and Europe will impact the macroeconomic choices that China, Japan and India make on currency, trade and industrial policies. But simply blaming hostile external economic conditions and kicking the can down the road will not be prudent for Xi, Modi nor Abe if they are intent on sustaining themselves at the helm.

In summary, the advent of an unsure and cynical West is a clear opportunity for Asia's leaders to advance the "Asian century," provided that Beijing, New Delhi and Tokyo manage their geopolitical tussles and repair their economies. If politically secure giants like Xi, Modi and Abe cannot deliver on these historic tasks, no one can.

Sreeram Chaulia is a professor and dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India. His most recent book is "Modi Doctrine: The Foreign Policy of India's Prime Minister."

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