It seemed fitting that the recent 10th National People's Congress (NPC) and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) National Committee sessions in Beijing focused on sustainable economic growth while at the same time turmoil in the Republic of Korea (ROK) highlighted the importance of political stability in East Asia.
The upheaval in the ROK stemmed from the legislative process to impeach President Roh Moon Hyun.
In fact, political stability and sustainable economic growth are inexorably linked and mutually-reinforcing by nature in societal development.
In Southeast Asia political stability is now at the fore, as a series of elections are being held in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand over the next 11 months, and Cambodia is seeking to stabilize its fragile political system in the aftermath of elections in July 2003.
Economic growth has become a major issue in electoral campaigning in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, as Southeast Asian economies seek to recover from the economic dip of 2001-02.
The economy inevitably "predominates" politics and political stability in many parts of East Asia today, and China's NPC-CPPCC sessions which concluded last week in Beijing testified to the importance of seeking "quality economic growth," and not just a continuous rise in the country's GDP.
Furthermore, social problems can emanate from robust economic growth and cannot be "wished away" with good GDP growth alone. The NPC-CPPCC rightly focused on the need to adopt stringent measures in tackling the effects of unbalanced economic growth. Growth sustenance in the longer term must hinge on social stability, otherwise such vertiginous GDP growth could lead to social instability.
One of the most important pillars in sustaining economic growth is the redistribution of wealth to create a budding middle class, which in turn "anchors" sustainable socio-economic development and growth.
The development of the private sector is key, and China is showing the way, especially to its Southeast Asian neighbours on its southern flank, that nurturing and "growing" this private sector could stabilize society. China's "go west" and "Northeast rejuvenation" policies, as well as enshrining the protection of private property in its Constitution are definitely positive steps towards creating a more sustainable socio-economic development in the country.
Southeast Asian countries could learn from the Chinese experience in developing the private sector-cum-middle class. Indonesia and the Philippines in particular should take heed, since they are heading to the polls in the next two months. Social and political stability can only be achieved if and when these societies "anchor" their future in a budding and developing middle class.
The cry for democracy alone does not guarantee social and political stability; stability should instead be built on social redistribution and the fight against corruption and power politics.
Malaysia's Premier Abdullah Badawi is leading a valiant fight against corruption, just as Thai Premier Thaksin Shinawatra seeks to develop domestic consumption and demand in the Thai economy, thus consolidating its middle class. East Asia's economic sustainability is not yet fully assured, despite the apparent "economic boom" of 2003.
Political stability is an important asset, which Indonesia and the Philippines cannot afford to forsake in the expediency of democracy or democratic struggles. Any instability resulting from these elections could affect the whole region and ASEAN, which is in fact in dire need of improving its image of international credibility and effectiveness.
Sustainable socio-economic redistribution, development and growth are crucial for Asia's social and political stability.
As East Asian electorates head to the polls in South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand over the next 11 months, economic and unemployment issues will definitely dominate political debates.
In this context, stability could best be assured by sustainable socio-economic growth and development, as well as the consolidation of a private-sector-attuned middle class in these countries.
(China Daily March 19, 2004)