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The Asian Square Dance – 1st part

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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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The Covid After-Effects and the Looming Skills Shortage

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coronavirus people

The shock of the pandemic is changing the ways in which we think about the world and in which we analyze the future trajectories of development. The persistence of the Covid pandemic will likely accentuate this transformation and the prominence of the “green agenda” this year is just one of the facets of these changes. Market research as well as the numerous think-tanks will be accordingly re-calibrating the time horizons and the main themes of analysis. Greater attention to longer risks and fragilities is likely to take on greater prominence, with particular scrutiny being accorded to high-impact risk factors that have a non-negligible probability of materializing in the medium- to long-term. Apart from the risks of global warming other key risk factors involve the rising labour shortages, most notably in areas pertaining to human capital development.

The impact of the Covid pandemic on the labour market will have long-term implications, with “hysteresis effects” observed in both highly skilled and low-income tiers of the labour market. One of the most significant factors affecting the global labour market was the reduction in migration flows, which resulted in the exacerbation of labour shortages across the major migrant recipient countries, such as Russia. There was also a notable blow delivered by the pandemic to the spheres of human capital development such as education and healthcare, which in turn exacerbated the imbalances and shortages in these areas. In particular, according to the estimates of the World Health Organization (WHO) shortages can mount up to 9.9 million physicians, nurses and midwives globally by 2030.

In Europe, although the number of physicians and nurses has increased in general in the region by approximately 10% over the past 10 years, this increase appears to be insufficient to cover the needs of ageing populations. At the same time the WHO points to sizeable inequalities in the availability of physicians and nurses between countries, whereby there are 5 times more doctors in some countries than in others. The situation with regard to nurses is even more acute, as data show that some countries have 9 times fewer nurses than others.

In the US substantial labour shortages in the healthcare sector are also expected, with anti-crisis measures falling short of substantially reversing the ailments in the national healthcare system. In particular, data published by the AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges), suggests that the United States could see an estimated shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034, including shortfalls in both primary and specialty care.

The blows sustained by global education from the pandemic were no less formidable. These affected first and foremost the youngest generation of the globe – according to UNESCO, “more than 1.5 billion students and youth across the planet are or have been affected by school and university closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic”. On top of the adverse effects on the younger generation (see Box 1), there is also the widening “teachers gap”, namely a worldwide shortage of well-trained teachers. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), “69 million teachers must be recruited to achieve universal primary and secondary education by 2030”.

From our partner RIAC

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Accelerating COVID-19 Vaccine Uptake to Boost Malawi’s Economic Recovery

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Lunzu market in southern Malawi. WFP/Greg Barrow

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries including Malawi have struggled to mitigate its impact amid limited fiscal support and fragile health systems. The pandemic has plunged the continent into its first recession in over 25 years, and vulnerable groups such as the poor, informal sector workers, women, and youth, suffer disproportionately from reduced opportunities and unequal access to social safety nets.

Fast-tracking COVID-19 vaccine acquisition—alongside widespread testing, improved treatment, and strong health systems—are critical to protecting lives and stimulating economic recovery. In support of the African Union’s (AU) target to vaccinate 60 percent of the continent’s population by 2022, the World Bank and the AU announced a partnership to assist the Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT) initiative with resources, allowing countries to purchase and deploy vaccines for up to 400 million Africans. This extraordinary effort complements COVAX and comes at a time of rising cases in the region.

I am convinced that unless every country in the world has fair, broad, and fast access to effective and safe COVID-19 vaccines, we will not stem the spread of the pandemic and set the global economy on track for a steady and inclusive recovery. The World Bank has taken unprecedented steps to ramp up financing for Malawi, and every country in Africa, to empower them with the resources to implement successful vaccination campaigns and compensate for income losses, food price increases, and service delivery disruptions.

In line with Malawi’s COVID-19 National Response and Preparedness Plan which aims to vaccinate 60 percent of the population, the World Bank approved $30 million in additional financing for the acquisition and deployment of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines. This financing comes as a boost to Malawi’s COVID-19 Emergency Response and Health Systems Preparedness project, bringing World Bank contributions in this sector up to $37 million.

Malawi’s decision to purchase 1.8 million doses of Johnson and Johnson vaccines through the AU/African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT) with World Bank financing is a welcome development and will enable Malawi to secure additional vaccines to meet its vaccination target.

However, Malawi’s vaccination campaign has encountered challenges driven by concerns regarding safety, efficacy, religious and cultural beliefs. These concerns, combined with abundant misinformation, are fueling widespread vaccine hesitancy despite the pandemic’s impact on the health and welfare of billions of people.  The low uptake of COVID-19 vaccines is of great concern, and it remains an uphill battle to reach the target of 60 percent by the end of 2023 from the current 2.2 percent.

Government leadership remains fundamental as the country continues to address vaccine hesitancy by consistently communicating the benefits of the vaccine, releasing COVID data, and engaging communities to help them understand how this impacts them.

As we deploy targeted resources to address COVID-19, we are also working to ensure that these investments support a robust, sustainable and resilient recovery. Our support emphasizes transparency, social protection, poverty alleviation, and policy-based financing to make sure that COVID assistance gets to the people who have been hit the hardest.

For example, the Financial Inclusion and Entrepreneurship Scaling Project (FInES) in Malawi is supporting micro, small, and medium enterprises by providing them with $47 million in affordable credit through commercial banks and microfinance institutions. Eight months into implementation, approximately $8.4 million (MK6.9 billion) has been made available through three commercial banks on better terms and interest rates. Additionally, nearly 200,000 urban households have received cash transfers and urban poor now have more affordable access to water to promote COVID-19 prevention.

Furthermore, domestic mobilization of resources for the COVID-19 response are vital to ensuring the security of supply of health sector commodities needed to administer vaccinations and sustain ongoing measures. Likewise, regional approaches fostering cross-border collaboration are just as imperative as in-country efforts to prevent the spread of the virus. United Nations (UN) partners in Malawi have been instrumental in convening regional stakeholders and supporting vaccine deployment.

Taking broad, fast action to help countries like Malawi during this unprecedented crisis will save lives and prevent more people falling into poverty. We thank Malawi for their decisive action and will continue to support the country and its people to build a resilient and inclusive recovery.

This op-ed first appeared in The Nation, via World Bank

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An Airplane Dilemma: Convenience Versus Environment

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Mr. President:  There are many consequences of COVID-19 that have changed the existing landscape due to the cumulative effects of personal behavior.  For example, the decline in the use of automobiles has been to the benefit of the environment.  A landmark study published by Nature in May 2020 confirmed a 17 percent drop in daily CO2 emissions but with the expectation that the number will bounce back as human activity returns to normal.

Yet there is hope.  We are all creatures of habit and having tried teleconferences, we are less likely to take the trouble to hop on a plane for a personal meeting, wasting time and effort.  Such is also the belief of aircraft operators.  Add to this the convenience of shopping from home and having the stuff delivered to your door and one can guess what is happening.

In short, the need for passenger planes has diminished while cargo operators face increased demand.  Fewer passenger planes also means a reduction in belly cargo capacity worsening the situation.  All of which has led to a new business with new jobs — converting passenger aircraft for cargo use.  It is not as simple as it might seem, and not just a matter of removing seats, for all unnecessary items must be removed for cargo use. They take up cargo weight and if not removed waste fuel.

After the seats and interior fittings have been removed, the cabin floor has to be strengthened.  The side windows are plugged and smoothed out.  A cargo door is cut out and the existing emergency doors are deactivated and sealed.  Also a new crew entry door has to be cut-out and installed. 

A new in-cabin cargo barrier with a sliding access door is put in, allowing best use of cargo and cockpit space and a merged carrier and crew space.  A new crew lavatory together with replacement water and waste systems replace the old, which supplied the original passenger area and are no longer needed.

The cockpit gets upgrades which include a simplified air distribution system and revised hydraulics.  At the end of it all, we have a cargo jet.  If the airlines are converting their planes, then they must believe not all the travelers will be returning after the covid crisis recedes.

Airline losses have been extraordinary.  Figures sourced from the World Bank and the International Civil Aviation Organization reveal air carriers lost $370 billion in revenues.  This includes $120 billion in the Asia-Pacific region, $100 billion in Europe and $88 billion in North America.

For many of the airlines, it is now a new business model transforming its fleet for cargo demand and launching new cargo routes.  The latter also requires obtaining regulatory approvals.

A promising development for the future is sustainable aviation fuel (SAP).  Developed by the Air France KLM Martinair consortium it reduces CO2 emissions, and cleaner air transport contributes to lessening global warming.

It is a good start since airplanes are major transportation culprits increasing air pollution and radiative forcing.  The latter being the heat reflected back to earth when it is greater than the heat radiated from the earth.  All of which should incline the environmentally conscious to avoid airplane travel — buses and trains pollute less and might be a preferred alternative for domestic travel.

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