Asia in the new world order

December 4, 1991

Dr WALDON BELLO, executive Director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy in the United States, is a Filipino-American who has written widely on Third World debt, militarisation and economic policy, with a special focus on South East Asia. He is the author of Dragons in Distress, a book about the economies of the "newly industrialising countries" and Development Debacle: The World Bank in the Philippines. He was recently in Australia for a conference organised by Freedom From Hunger. He was interviewed for Green Left Weekly by ANDREW NETTE.

There are obviously new democratic openings in Asia, but at the same time, there are a number of factors working against fundamental social change in the region. What do you make of these contradictory events?

Certainly it is true that there are a number of incredibly repressive governments in Asia, which is why a major role will have to be played by non-governmental organisations, both political and semi-political, to force changes and not leave it up to these authoritarian and anti-democratic governments to shape the new regional order.

This is becoming easier, because a lot of these elites are becoming fragmented into factions that are pro- and anti-Japanese. Japan is becoming the main economic power in the region in relation to US capital, which is becoming less and less dynamic.

What do you think the situation of Vietnam and Cambodia will be in the next decade?

There will almost certainly be a stabilisation in these countries. There will be ongoing problems in Cambodia, particularly with the Khmer Rouge continuing to wage some sort of low-intensity conflict, but this will be containable, particularly with international assistance.

Vietnam is definitely looking much more inward and moving towards adopting free market economic policies. This is part of a wider trend in Indochina — to keep the political apparatus in place but move very quickly towards capitalist economics.

The only thing that is preventing the Japanese moving into Vietnam in force is a fear of offending the US by breaking its trade embargo. Clearly the Japanese see Vietnam as an alternative [area of investment] because of rising wages in Thailand and Indonesia and because Vietnam has the kind of political stability that is absent in the Philippines.

I am very much afraid for the future of Vietnam, because there are not many people there articulating an alternative to free market economics.

What do you think the future of the newly industrialised countries is? Despite the problems you described in your recent book Dragons In Distress, they seem to have an enormous amount of dynamism in them. They are not yet totally on the skids, but they have a lot of major structural problems.

Their main area of growth has been assembling foreign-made components for multinationals, particularly Japanese multinationals because the labour is so cheap. They have tremendous trade deficits because they have not graduated from the cheap labour economies and they are still very much dependent on Japanese capital. What's more, they are losing this cheap labour, partly due to successful labour organisation and partly because of labour shortages, which have made wages rise.

They are also having major problems with their agriculture and enormous environmental problems.

A whole series of questions is emerging which they have to face — for example, rising poverty levels and what sort of political system they will have. These are serious points of contention given the sharpening social and class conflicts in these societies.

If you want one country in the world where the working class is still acting in the traditional Marxist way, it is South Korea, precisely because the South Korean working class is so alienated from the governing process and they don't have any stake in the strategy of growth.

I think the NICs could play a really dynamic role in economic growth in a regional bloc that really tried to achieve regional and economic independence by standing up to the power of Japanese capital. If they do not look to being part of a cooperative techno-trading bloc in South-east Asia that excludes Japan, they face becoming even more so appendages to the Japanese economic machine.

What do you think is the Philippines' position in the New World Order?

The Philippines is now one of the last bastions of US economic power in Asia. The strategic importance of the Philippines to the US has lessened, although at the same time we are still not very sure how important the Philippines is to Japan. In terms of investment, I think they would probably prefer to move in force into Vietnam if they are looking for cheap labour.

What is obvious is that the movements in the Philippines should be pushing for a policy of more closely coordinating their policies with those of their South-east Asian neighbours.

Will the fact that the Philippines is becoming less important to the US open up any spaces for organising serious social change?

Yes, I think this could be so. The US was a very important factor in making it very difficult for the progressive movement to operate in the Philippines. Certainly there is now space for the creation of popular democratic alternatives that can contend for political power.

Is the national democratic movement one of these contenders?

Yes, but only if it changes. Right now the national democratic movement seems to be stagnating around a number of debates that are divorced from Philippine reality, for instance whether to go tracted war in the countryside or insurrection in the cities. These debates don't deal with the Filipino political culture, which I think is still very strong on viewing legitimacy as springing from the ballot box.

As a result, I think the task for the progressive movement in the Philippines is to operate in that sphere as well as out of it, thereby extending the concept of democracy to more than voting, and in that way really change the system.

I have a lot of hope that the national democratic movement can do this once it begins to move away from the debates on these false issues.

What do you think will be the significance of the elections in the Philippines next year?

The election represents an enormous opportunity. At the last elections in 1988, the left either boycotted them or didn't take them very seriously. It's not enough for the left to say that they are participating in elections purely to publicise their program to the people and that they don't really care about winning. The left can no longer use its disgust with the traditional political system in the Philippines, which I might add is very justified, as an excuse to continue to abstain from elections.

The subject of another of your books was the activity of the World Bank in the Philippines. Since you wrote Development Debacle, what if anything has changed about World Bank activities in the Philippines?

They continue to be very instrumental in determining economic policies in the Philippines. The Philippines has now been under an IMF structural adjustment program continuously since 1979. In the '80s, the Philippines economy actually contracted by about 1.5%, and the World Bank has been primarily responsible for this. The main role of economic policy continues to be paying off the US$28 billion debt; everything else is subordinated to that. I keep thinking that somebody should write a sequel to Development Debacle, but then I realise that nothing has really changed.

What is really worse is that the Philippines experience has been generalised throughout the Third World in the '80s. The World Bank ceased to be connected in any way with development and got together with the IMF to tailor structural adjustment programs to a lot of countries in the Third World, including in Africa, Latin America and Asia. The same patterns have been repeated: growth has gone down, debt has increased, etc. This means that it is more important than ever that countries such as the Philippines stand together for the abolition of such programs.

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