When a world-renowned geopolitical risk analyst tells you you’re living in the world’s most dangerous place, what do you do?
You blanch and blink.
Ian Bremmer, 44, a political risk expert who founded the Eurasia Group, was sitting in a nondescript room with several newspaper editors from Singapore Press Holdings intent on picking his brains on hot spots in the world.
He was talking about the Ukraine and Russia, which he considered a graver threat to world order than the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The western world’s mismanagement in Ukraine had led to Russia flexing its muscle, Nato displeasure and Russia cosying up to China. The latter was what worried Mr Bremmer, more than the mayhem being unleashed by the ISIS extremists in Syria and Iraq.
But the most troubling conflict zone, the most dangerous place in the world long-term, is this region, he said. He meant Asia.
In the media business, it’s easy to get caught up with the headlines of the week. These days, the news is all about ISIS. It was Scotland’s referendum last week, and Ukraine remains on and off for the past few months. China and disputes in the East and South China Seas have been knocked off the front-page headlines for a few weeks.
But it remains the most worrying conflict zone in the world to this political scientist with a PhD from Stanford.
He shot to fame with The J-Curve: A New Way to Understand why Nations Rise and Fall, on political transition. It was on the Economist’s 2006 list of books of the year.
His recent book Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a GZero World (2012) argued that the world is not a G7, G20 or G2 world, but a G-Zero world.
As he argued in a 2011 article in Foreign Affairs co-authored with Nouriel Roubini, each country has its own interests and it will be hard for any country or group to exercise leadership to forge a global consensus. As the article puts it: “There is no collective economic security in a globalised economy”. It’s the end of the Washington consensus and there’s no Beijing consensus in sight. It’s every nation for itself, and the era of protracted conflict.
So when the guru of G-Zero peers into the future and says it’s gonna be Every Nation for Itself - and by the way, Asia is the global hotspot, you can’t help but worry about what this means for Singapore.
Is it North-east Asia, or South-east Asia that he would worry about most, I ask.
Both, he says. China and Japan remain at loggerheads over disputed islands, spiced by historical animosity. Japan is a treaty ally of America, which might be a way for the United States to be dragged into a conflict in the region.
In South-east Asia, the competing claims in the South China Sea, especially those between China and the Philippines, and China and Vietnam, have already led to incidents at sea. Add nationalism to the mix, and it’s the kind of maritime theatre that could flare up into a full scale skirmish and military conflict.
To folk like Ian Bremmer, the South China Sea disputes are an arena for analysis, a platform on which to build their theories of the world.
For those of us living in South-east Asia, what’s happening in those disputes - the siting then removal of an oil-rig, sending naval patrols to disputed areas - is a living theatre of the future unfolding before our eyes.
How China and the US deal with each other will have an impact on our future, our children, the kind of jobs they have. How China conducts itself with Japan, the Philippines or Vietnam, in the face of disputes over islands or seas, point the way to its future relations with South-east Asian countries as its economic and military might grow.
In Singapore, many of us are prone to a certain navel-gazing, obsessing over domestic concerns. Of course the widow and the tour guide, Tan Pin Pin’s banned film, Central Provident Fund changes, are all matters that matter to Singaporeans.
But sometimes it takes an outsider to remind us of the backdrop in which we operate. And that is that, peaceful Little Red Dot that we are, we remain situated within the most dangerous spot in the world.
Don’t take it from me. Take it from Ian Bremmer.