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Less Consumer Spending in America Will Spark Radical Protest in Asia

The sudden end of the 30-year export era in Asia is going to have some ugly consequences.
 
 
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As goods pile up in wharves from Bangkok to Shanghai, and workers are laid off in record numbers, people in East Asia are beginning to realize they aren't only experiencing an economic downturn but living through the end of an era.

For over 40 years now, the cutting edge of the region's economy has been export-oriented industrialization (EOI). Taiwan and Korea first adopted this strategy of growth in the mid-1960s, with Korean dictator Park Chung-Hee coaxing his country's entrepreneurs to export by, among other measures, cutting off electricity to their factories if they refused to comply.

The success of Korea and Taiwan convinced the World Bank that EOI was the wave of the future. In the mid-1970s, then-Bank President Robert McNamara enshrined it as doctrine, preaching that "special efforts must be made in many countries to turn their manufacturing enterprises away from the relatively small markets associated with import substitution toward the much larger opportunities flowing from export promotion."

EOI became one of the key points of consensus between the Bank and Southeast Asia's governments. Both realized import substitution industrialization could only continue if domestic purchasing power were increased via significant redistribution of income and wealth, and this was simply out of the question for the region's elites. Export markets, especially the relatively open U.S. market, appeared to be a painless substitute.

Japanese Capital Creates an Export Platform

The World Bank endorsed the establishment of export processing zones, where foreign capital could be married to cheap (usually female) labor. It also supported the establishment of tax incentives for exporters and, less successfully, promoted trade liberalization. Not until the mid-1980s, however, did the economies of Southeast Asia take off, and this wasn't so much because of the Bank but because of aggressive U.S. trade policy. In 1985, in what became known as the Plaza Accord, the United States forced the drastic revaluation of the Japanese yen relative to the dollar and other major currencies. By making Japanese imports more expensive to American consumers, Washington hoped to reduce its trade deficit with Tokyo. Production in Japan became prohibitive in terms of labor costs, forcing the Japanese to move the more labor-intensive parts of their manufacturing operations to low-wage areas, in particular to China and Southeast Asia. At least $15 billion worth of Japanese direct investment flowed into Southeast Asia between 1985 and 1990.

The inflow of Japanese capital allowed the Southeast Asian "newly industrializing countries" to escape the credit squeeze of the early 1980s brought on by the Third World debt crisis, surmount the global recession of the mid-1980s, and move onto a path of high-speed growth. The centrality of the endaka, or currency revaluation, was reflected in the ratio of foreign direct investment inflows to gross capital formation, which leaped spectacularly in the late 1980s and 1990s in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand.

The dynamics of foreign-investment-driven growth was best illustrated in Thailand, which received $24 billion worth of investment from capital-rich Japan, Korea, and Taiwan in just five years, between 1987 and 1991. Whatever might have been the Thai government's economic policy preferences — protectionist, mercantilist, or pro-market — this vast amount of East Asian capital coming into Thailand could not but trigger rapid growth. The same was true in the two other favored nations of northeast Asian capital, Malaysia and Indonesia.

It wasn't just the scale of Japanese investment over a five-year period that mattered, however; it was the process. The Japanese government and keiretsu, or conglomerates, planned and cooperated closely in the transfer of corporate industrial facilities to Southeast Asia. One key dimension of this plan was to relocate not just big corporations like Toyota or Matsushita, but also small and medium enterprises that provided their inputs and components. Another was to integrate complementary manufacturing operations that were spread across the region in different countries. The aim was to create an Asia Pacific platform for re-export to Japan and export to third-country markets. This was industrial policy and planning on a grand scale, managed jointly by the Japanese government and corporations and driven by the need to adjust to the post-Plaza Accord world. As one Japanese diplomat put it rather candidly, "Japan is creating an exclusive Japanese market in which Asia Pacific nations are incorporated into the so-called keiretsu [financial-industrial bloc] system."

 
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