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Elephants, ants and Asia's resilience

"When two elephants fight, it is the ants that get trampled." (Or the grass - choose your metaphor). 

This week, Nikkei gathered an impressive list of Asian presidents, prime ministers and high-ranking officials in Tokyo to discuss the 'Future of Asia" and more than one leader cited this proverb. The two pachyderms, obviously, are the US and China, currently locking tusks over trade, technology...and potentially so much more. The Asian politicians worried that their smaller and often very open, trade-dependent economies will end up as collateral damage.

Moreover, this was only the top concern in a list that included global and local flashpoints (south-China sea, Kashmir), rising inequality, growing debt, climate change, and technological disruption. Given the upending of the global order that has prevailed since the end of the cold war, conflict and instability beckon, argued many of the politicians. Some harked back to the dark periods of the 20th century, while Malaysian Premier Mohamad Mahathir called human beings "still relatively uncivilised" since they have a nasty habit of killing each other.

And yet...

As soon as they turned from the global picture to the outlook for their own countries, every leader became a sunny optimist. Malaysians, it turns out, are actually quite civilised and much prefer to talk with other Asean leaders than to fight them. Mr Mahathir even raised a laugh from the conference audience by saying that anyone was welcome to invade his country -- there would be no resistance.

More practically, the prime minister of Bangladesh reeled off a string of impressive economic statistics, led by the country's recent 8%+ GDP growth. Cambodia's boss pointed to 7.7% annual growth over the past two decades, while Vietnam touted its own 7.1%, on a rather larger base. Everyone talked about progress on deregulation and increased transparency, designed to attract foreign investment. My favourite was the Mongolian official who tried to sell us on a vision of "Gobi Tech". Perhaps he shouldn't first have shown all those pictures of horses grazing on endless steppes.

But there is a serious point beyond the sometimes clumsy marketing. Asian politicians may be increasingly concerned about internatonal tensions but they remain absolutely convinced about their domestic potential -- and the most far-sighted of them are supporting already favourable demographics and high levels of ambition and initiative with investment in education and infrastructure, with economic reform and with smart social programmes. This underlying confidence mirrors that felt by business leaders, particularly in Asean nations, which I have written about previously

The elephants may continue to butt heads but I don't think we have to worry overly about the ants. 

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