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The Asian Square Dance – 1st part

Michael Akerib

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Goldman Sachs first coined the expression BRICs – Brazil, Russia, India and China – to identify the economic giants of the future that will reshape the world economic order. While Russia’s economy is linked to the prices of commodities, energy in particular, Brazil has not lived up to expectations. Of the four countries, China and India have shown the most impressive growth in recent years with, respectively, 10% and 8%. Excluding Brazil, the population of the BRIC represents 40% of the world’s inhabitants.

With Asia, reckoned to be today the most dynamic continent, accounting for 65% of the world’s population, and China and India together accounting for 40%, these two countries can potentially alter the fragile equilibrium of the world’s economy. It is forecast that by 2030 the East Asian economies will be the world’s largest economic bloc.

Due to diverging political ideologies and concerns, however, this bloc does not, in fact, exist other than in prose. Even worse, all the countries in the area have made significant investments in military equipment over the recent past thus sharply increasing the risk of conflict particularly as fears grow over China’s intentions.

The US’ dream, during the cold war, of creating an Asian equivalent to NATO was short lived. Today, Asia has five nuclear powers: Pakistan, India, China, North Korea and Russia. On the other hand, the US is constrained by budgetary problems.

Our argument in this series of articles is that the development of Asia, and its impact on the rest of the world, depends to a large extent on the relations between five countries: China, India, Japan, South Korea and the US. Depending on the structure of the type of relations that will develop, and choices made by Russia and the US, for instance on their energy policy, we may see a new world order developing, very different from that of the last four hundred years. Further, if the Chinese economy faces difficulties in the future, the US will be instrumental in determining Asia’s future. Conversely, if the US economy falters, China, if it so wishes, could assume the world’s economic leadership.

Since the end of the Second World War, the US’ role in the area has been a major influencing factor politically, militarily and economically and while it has declined recently, it remains, nevertheless, important. Asia is challenging the EU as the world’s most important trade bloc.

The US imports from Asia for over $2 trillion per year, thus making the US responsible for the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs. A weakening of the US dollar could significantly diminish the US’ role in the region.

At issue here is what A F K Organski has termed ‘Power transition theory’ – i.e. the change of the guard of the dominant power where the dominant power occupies this position because of its control of resources, be they demographic, economic, geographic, natural or military.

According to the theory, the dominant power, or powers, must ensure the stability of the system failing what the system might be challenged by an emerging hegemon. These situations are conducive to confrontation, very often military.

The emerging hegemon is, no doubt, China, and the events in Eurasia, over the coming quarter century will witness an indirect confrontation between China and the US, a confrontation whose secondary actors are India and Russia.

Is China striving to attain the status of great power and challenge the US, at least regionally, and what role do the other regional powers, as well as Russia and the US play? Or is it just trying to reduce its feeling of being surrounded by enemies?

Asia has become a powerhouse with several countries showing economic strength and appearing to be rivals. A dangerous rivalry inasmuch as five countries in the area have a nuclear arsenal (China, India, North Korea, Pakistan and Russia), with two more (Japan and South Korea) able to produce a nuclear bomb in a relatively short time.

Monetary reserves in Asia are sufficient to allow the area to develop without much further foreign investments. Further, an increase in economic stability is heralded by the recent agreement between several Asian countries – the members of ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea – to pool their financial resources in case of a speculative attack.

While the major trade partner of most of the countries in the area is Australia, the European Union and the United States, regional trade has increased considerably. Services such as tourism also cater increasingly to Asians.

There remains the question of whether the continent is able to develop its own technological base to compete with Europe and the US. There are diverging points of view on the issue.

The perception by the Asian countries of the effect of China’s domination of the continent evolved into an understanding that they only have two options – siding with China or with Japan and its US ally.

The financial difficulties originating in the US and which have spilled all over the world have affected Asia in its role of major exporter. As a reaction, China, Japan and South Korea are considering the creation of a community modelled on the European Union that would help them expand trade within their area and increase trade with the ASEAN countries, Russia, the Middle East and Europe. They are encouraged in this action as inter-Asian trade has been growing at twice the rate of global trade. Inter-Asian trade is more important as a percentage of total trade than inter-NAFTA trade.

The US should fear the creation of a trading block including China, Japan and South Korea as it would represent 43% of US’ foreign trade and holdings of over one trillion dollars in US Treasury paper.

 

Common problems
The countries in the area, with the notable exception of Russia, share two major problems: access to raw materials in general, and energy in particular, and an economy essentially geared to exports, and thus very dependent on the purchasing power of EU and US consumers. This last aspect is changing rapidly though with domestic markets starting to take shape and offering local producers a partial insulation from the American-led boom and bust cycles.

It is generally felt in the US that China has not been doing enough to stimulate internal demand – the number of consumers is no bigger than Italy while the population is 20 times that of the European country – and that the situation has been worsened by the decision of the Chinese government to peg the Yuan to the US dollar, thus effectively undertaking a devaluation.

Should China’s export drive remain as a major contributor the country’s economy, the accumulation of reserves by 2020 will be bigger than that of Germany, Japan and the Middle East countries put together. America’s response could be to return to a more isolationist policy by slapping import duties on Chinese products or getting China to open its doors to greater exports of US products.

Both China and India have to contend with an extremely large population. In fact, they are the only two countries with a population of over 1 billion persons. Economic development has brought, to both countries, an uneven distribution of wealth to the extent that social disruptions can be feared in the future.

China has become the world’s second largest oil consumer and it is likely that it will surpass the US to lead the world in energy use. Imports which represent 50% of consumption are likely to rise to reach 80% in another 10 – 15 years particularly considering the oil intensity of economic growth is particularly high, as in most developing countries. Thus, for each 1% growth in GDP, the country needs 1.2% additional oil.

In fact, China is the world’s fast-growing energy user, Russia is the most inefficient user of energy and he US is the country with the largest carbon footprint.

China is also the world’s largest consumer of several raw materials.
The country’s search for natural resources has been done in a predatory way, and there is fear that, backed by its staggering reserves, it could encourage suppliers to increase prices at levels beyond those acceptable to a large number of other users.

India’s energy requirements are expected to grow by 30% in the next 3 to 5 years and its imported crude oil dependency is expected to reach 95% by 2025.

India depends for 50% of its energy needs on coal and increasing its use would create major environmental problems.

Its gas suppliers are considered to be relatively unreliable and include Bangladesh, Iran, Myanmar and Turkmenistan.

This situation has encouraged India to pursue the road to nuclear power.
Such growth in raw material requirements is not sustainable and is strategically dangerous.

Both China and India have very large armies (in fact the largest in the world) and nuclear weapons.

Japan is also a major energy importer, relying entirely on imports for oil. Japan has an important stockpile of energy products, and it has encouraged other Asian countries, including China, to jointly plan the stocks and their administration.

Indeed, Asia’s energy needs are expected to double in the coming 20 years. In spite of this, OPEC countries do not seem to be prepared to invest in increasing production, in large part because of the massive funds required. They have been estimated by McKinsey to be of the order of $ 45 billion a year over the next three decades.

The countries in the area perceive themselves as rivals in securing energy sources and China, particularly, has shown an eagerness to develop partnerships, whether through limited investments, or through political support, in the United Nations, of countries like Iran.

Hydrocarbon reserves in the China Sea are claimed by several countries, and are a growing point of contention. Neighboring countries are fearful of China’s rising military power and have led them to develop closer relations with the US.

In an effort to temper their competition, India and China have made some joint bids to buy and share oil fields.

Japan too is dependent on energy imports and has recently been unlucky with their supply sources. Thus, they have had to curtail their investments in Iran, Kuwait, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

To counterbalance these losses, Japan has offered Saudi Arabia the possibility of building oil-storage facilities in Okinawa, provided Japan can have access to them in case of emergency.

A closer rapprochement between the two countries depends, however, on the US’ willingness for this to take place as the Saudi monarchy depends on the US military shield against the rising threat of Iran and of the djihadists, and there is no way Japan can replace the US in that role. This, in spite of the fact that Asia is today, by far, the largest buyer of both Saudi and more generally, Middle Eastern oil – up to 60% and 70% of their exports, respectively.

Reliance on Russia for energy is therefore extremely important. While a pipeline is being built from Siberia to the Pacific that could partly alleviate these escalating needs, a number of other pipeline projects have been proposed. All these projects require large investments ($ 1-2 million per kilometer of pipeline or around $ 12 billion for the pipeline that will link Russia and China), long delays in building and face substantial political and ecological problems. Further, the gas transmission systems in China and Japan are under-developed and therefore not suitable for the transport of large quantities of imported gas.

Russian industry has access to gas supplies at prices substantially below those practised on world markets and has therefore become a voracious user. The Russian government will be increasing prices for domestic consumption, including for private heating, and / or turning to alternative energy sources such as coal, hydro-electric or nuclear power.

Other possibilities have also been considered, but they all depend on Russia’s cooperation.

Thus, for instance, integrating the energy grids of Russia with those of China, Japan and the two Koreas has been proposed to enable the exchange of seasonal surplus.

This entails not only Russia’s cooperation, but also North Korea’s. It also requires large investments, although possibly not of the scale of building a pipeline network.

Another common point between the China, India, Japan and South Korea is that they constitute, jointly, the world’s largest weapons market and their suppliers are the European Union, Russia and the United States.

China and Japan also share the will to stop North Korea’s nuclear program.

The two countries are also large emitters of greenhouse gases.

Both China and Russia fear, perhaps rightly so, that the US is conducting an encirclement strategy due to their military presence in Central Asia as well as, in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan as far as China is concerned, and Russia is concerned with a possible NATO expansion in Europe.

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Economy

Business disorder between Europe and U.S.

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The European Union remains cautious in the economic battle with the White House. U.S. President Donald Trump continues to pursue his protectionist policies in international trade system. This has led to raising concerns and serious discontent among the United States’ European partners.

Disputes between the United States and other countries around the world are continuing on trade and economic issues. The fact is that U.S. President Donald Trump intends to exacerbate tensions until the presidential elections of 2020. Many international experts and analysts believe that a major part of the economic approach to the world of Trump has an electoral and political goal.

Many international analysts now talk about the conflicts between the United States and Europe over imposing sweeping steel and aluminum tariffs as a transatlantic “trade war”.

Conflicts that may extend in the near future and affect the widespread relations between Washington and Europe.

On the other hand, the authorities of Germany, Britain and France have not taken a proper approach to the policies of the President of the United States.Though politicians such as Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and Theresa May seek to manage the situation and prevent the exacerbation of tensions with Washington, but people, business owners and European opposition parties are so angry at Trump and the U.S. government that the European troika’s authorities aren’t capable to control or even hide it.

One of the most important reasons for the continuation of Trump’s economic policies in the world is the passivity of European leaders against the White House. Under such circumstances, Europe has threatened to retaliate against the U.S. if Trump imposes steel and aluminum tariffs on European exports.

After Trump made his first announcement on the tariffs, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker threatened to put tariffs on American goods in response to Trump’s decision. That could decrease demand for those products inside EU borders and consequently lead to U.S. workers losing their jobs. But practically, European countries did not do anything about this.

Although some European citizens thought that the Chancellor of Germany would have a more determined approach than other European politicians, this was also a mistake!The German Chancellor stated that European Union member states must give the EU trade commissioner a clear mandate for negotiations with the United States over a long-term exemption from U.S. metal tariffs. Markel added: “Of course, we think it’s important that there are exemptions not only for a limited period of time … So far, we have had a very united stance, namely that we view these tariff demands as unjustified and that we want a long-term exemption.”

The fact is that Merkel’s implicit threat, which she didn’t address directly and explicitly because of her conservative policy towards the United States, is the same as the “European countermeasures” against the United States.

For months now, there have been months of anti-European measures taken by the White House and customs duties on European aluminum and steel. However, European countries have preferred to keep Silent instead of confronting Washington!
Indeed, the prolonged U.S.-EU talks on steel and aluminum tariffs is going to increase the dissatisfaction and anger among the European public opinion. It will also affect the performance of American companies in Europe.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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Citizen Capitalism: How a Universal Fund can provide Influence and Income to all

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In the face of growing wealth inequality worldwide, more and more people are discussing alternatives to the current laissez-faire capitalism status quo.  Tamara Belinfanti, Sergio Gramitto and the late Lynn Stout offer up their own solution in Citizen Capitalism: How a universal fund can provide influence and income to all.

Our authors have devised up a concept they call the Universal Fund.  It’s like a sovereign wealth fund, but is privately created and funded via private ordering. That means that the Universal Fund is to be created from donations of stocks by companies and philanthropists.  The government would hence be uninvolved; the Universal Fund is not a socialist venture.  Rather, it is in part modeled on the structure of NGOs like the Sierra Club and the Red Cross. The Fund would provide an annual dividend to every citizen, with no maximum income cap.  Though it may seem absurd to send welfare payments to the wealthy, it’s politically savvy framing.  A free public college bill was passed in ultraconservative Tennessee thanks to having no maximum income cap; conservative detractors weren’t able to use the “class warfare” and “welfare queen” arguments. It should be noted that charitable tax deductions, estate tax reductions and lowered tax brackets would act as a de facto government incentive for the wealthy to donate to the Universal Fund.

The goals of the Universal Fund would be to decrease wealth inequality, encourage long-term investment and increase civic engagement in corporate culture.  On the last point, the authors remind us that, “The top 10% [of wealthiest Americans] hold more than 90% of all shares.”  Even in regards to the other 10% of shares owned, most of them are passively owned.  Most small-time investors don’t have time to vote in the annual general meetings of every company in which they are invested in.  Thus, boardroom votes are dominated by two shareholder proxy advisory firms and individual investors who own a substantial percentage of shares, as well as fund portfolio & hedge fund managers.

These Wall Street elites naturally tend to vote based upon their elitist interests.  Thus, they usually make decisions that are insane in terms of employee welfare, long-term corporate growth, executive pay and the environment. For example, `the authors remind us of the recent case of Martin Shkreli, the hedge fund manager who acquired Turing Pharmaceuticals and then raised AIDS medication prices from $13.50 to $750. This is the embodiment of the Reagan-era Golden Rule of maximizing shareholder value.  Not only is this Gordon Gekko truism objectively crazy, it’s actually legally unfounded.  Contrary to what you hear on CNBC or Fox Business, there’s no legal requirement that companies only focus on maximizing shareholder value.  The book relates the following quote from Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito comments in the recent case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby:“Modern corporate law does not require for-profit corporations to pursue profit at the expense of everything else, and many do not do so.”

CITIZEN CAPITALISM points to the ongoing successes of the sovereign wealth funds of Norway and Alaska, an ultraliberal and an ultraconservative society, respectively.  The Alaskan fund generally provides each citizen with a dividend payment of a few thousand dollars each year, via the state’s oil revenues.  The Government Pension Fund Norway is a more pertinent example, since it’s funded through a $1T stock portfolio.  Norway is not only able to fund its citizens’ pensions through the Fund, but also exert a moral influence on the market.  The Fund boycotts various egregious companies, like cigarette manufacturers, and will sell its shares in a company that gets exposed for abusive practices, like say employing child labor.  Our authors likewise want the Universal Fund to use a carrot-and-stick approach in regards to corporate ethics.

The thesis of CITIZEN CAPITALISM is, as the title suggests, rooted in optimism for capitalism.  Though they write about the success of socialist program in Alaska specifically, a conservative state in the US, the authors are convinced that a sovereign wealth fund bill could never be passed in Congress.  Recent polls and election results, however, show that Americans are starting to overwhelmingly favor ambitious government-program proposals like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal.  As I wrote before, the Universal Fund would mostly be feasible due to tax incentives; these government incentives would likely need to be greatly expanded in order to encourage enough stock donations to build the Fund to a substantial size.  Even America’s greatest philanthropists still stockpile billions of dollars in their offshore bank accounts.  Thus, one shouldn’t expect the Universal Fund or other private UBI schemes to become a replacement for state management of wealth inequality through programs like public school funding and marginal taxation.  Nonetheless, CITIZEN CAPITALISM is a stimulating little primer for rethinking the relationship between Wall St and Main St, managing the looming crises of a rapidly aging workforce and automation, plus the balancing of private and public sectors in regards to solving societal problems.

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Working for a brighter future

Cyril Ramaphosa

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Authors: Cyril Ramaphosa and Stefan Löfven*

We stand at a crossroads as seismic shifts take place in the world of work.

Technological advances are changing the nature of many jobs, and leading to the need for new skills. The urgently required greening of economies to meet the challenge of climate change should bring further employment possibilities. Expanding youth populations in some parts of the world, ageing populations in others, may affect labour markets and social security systems.

On one path, countless opportunities lie ahead, not only to create jobs but also to improve the quality of our working lives. This requires that we reinvigorate the social contract that gives all partners a fair stake in the global economy.

On the other path, if we fail to prepare adequately for the coming challenges, we could be heading into a world that widens inequalities and leads to greater uncertainty.

The issues are complex. As co-chairs of the Global Commission on the Future of Work  we, and our fellow members of the Commission – leading figures from business and labour, think tanks, government and non-governmental organizations – have been examining the choices we need to make if we are to meet the challenges resulting from these transformations in the world of work and achieve social justice.

We call for a new, human-centred approach that allows everyone to thrive in a carbon neutral, digital age and affords them dignity, security, and equal opportunity. It must also meet the changing needs and challenges facing businesses and secure sustainable economic growth.

The opportunities are there to improve working lives, expand choice, close the gender gap and reverse the damage that has been wreaked by global inequality.

But it will need committed action on the part of governments and social partners to turn those opportunities into reality.

So how do we achieve this? Three areas of increased investment are needed:

First, we have to invest more in people’s capabilities: This means establishing an effective lifelong learning system that enables people to skill, reskill and upskill – a system that spans early childhood and basic education through to adult learning. It also means investing in the institutions that will support people as they go through transitions in their working lives – from school leavers to older workers. Making gender equality a reality and providing social protection from birth to old age are also critical. These social investments will not only increase productivity. They will also allow for a more inclusive growth, where informal workers and business can both benefit from and contribute to a sound formal economy.

Second, we must invest more in the institutions of work – including the establishment and implementation of a Universal Labour Guarantee. This will ensure that all workers enjoy fundamental rights, an “adequate living wage”, limits on their hours of work and safe and healthy workplaces. Linked to this, people need to have more control over their working time – while meeting the needs of enterprises – so that they can fulfill the full range of their responsibilities and develop their capabilities.

Collective representation through social dialogue between workers and employers needs to be actively promoted. Workers in the informal economy have often improved their working conditions by organizing. Unions need to expand membership to informal workers, whether they work in the rural economy, on the city streets of an emerging economy or on a digital platform. This is a critical step towards formalization and a tool for inclusion.

We’re also calling for governance systems for digital labour platforms that will require these platforms and their clients to respect certain minimum standards.

Finally, we need to invest more in decent and sustainable work. This includes incentives to promote investments in key areas, such as the care economy, the green economy, and the rural economy, as well as high-quality physical and digital infrastructure. We must also reshape private sector incentive structures to encourage a long-term, human-centred approach to business. That includes fair tax policies and improved corporate accounting standards. We need to explore new measures of country progress to track important aspects of economic and social advancement.

Beyond these critical investments, there is a further opportunity: to place discussions about the future of work at the heart of the economic and social debates taking place at the high table of international policy-making. This could revitalize the multilateral system at a time when many are questioning its legitimacy and effectiveness.

Yet none of this will happen by itself. If change is the opportunity, we must seize the moment to renew the social contract and create a brighter future by delivering economic security, equal opportunity and social justice – and ultimately reinforce the fabric of our societies.

Stefan Löfven, Prime Minister of Sweden, co-chairs of the ILO Global Commission on the Future of Work

ILO

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