TIME Business

Ebola the Trade Killer?

Transmission electron micrograph of Ebola virus.
Transmission electron micrograph of Ebola virus. Getty Images

Throughout history, disease has been considered an unwanted import

“Health consists of having the same diseases as one’s neighbors,” the English writer Quentin Crisp once quipped. He was right: when a disparity occurs, the sense of threat to our health inevitably increases. And what is true of the individual seems to be true of societies as a whole. “Parasite stress,” as scientists term it, has long been a factor in human relations, intensifying the fear and loathing of other peoples, as well as marginal groups within our own societies.

For a while, it seemed that we had transcended all that. In the wake of AIDS, a real effort was made to raise awareness of the link between health and civil rights. A more cosmopolitan sensibility emerged, encapsulated in the noble ideal of global health. Money poured into Africa in an effort to reduce the crippling burden of malaria and HIV. But, as Ebola reminds us, fundamental problems remain. No longer confined to remote rural locations, Ebola has become an urban disease and has spread uncontrollably in some western African nations, in the absence of effective healthcare.

The sheer scale of the present outbreak has brought these problems forcibly to our attention, but it has also revived the Victorian image of Africa as a dark continent teeming with disease. Pity and horror mingle with irrational fear, and have led some governments to introduce illiberal measures that have little or no basis in science. And the dread of Ebola is no longer confined to the West. Indeed, it tends to be more apparent throughout Asia than among Americans and Europeans. In August, Korean Air terminated its only direct flight to Africa due to Ebola concerns, never mind that the destination was nowhere near the affected region of the continent, but thousands of miles to the east in Nairobi! North Korea has also recently suspended visits from all foreign visitors – regardless of origin.

Anxiety about Ebola is more acute in Asia because epidemics, poverty, and famine are well within living memory. Hence, the eagerness to disengage from countries afflicted with infectious disease. But this divisive tendency stems largely from ignorance. As shown in the case of HIV/AIDS, we can find ways of dealing with new infections that are both effective and humane. To do so requires leadership and determination, both of which have been lacking.

The slowness of the international community to respond to the problem of Ebola, and the willingness of some to sever ties with the continent, is a legacy of centuries of conditioning in which health, politics, and prejudice intertwine. The roots of this mentality lie deep in our history. After humans mastered the rudiments of agriculture 12,000 years ago, they began to domesticate a greater variety of animals and came into contact with a wider range of infections. But this happened at different times in different places, and the resulting imbalance gave rise to the notion that some places were more dangerous than others. Persons who moved between settlements were regarded with suspicion in a world in which the vast majority were sedentary.

Well into the 20th century, diseases tended to be associated with other peoples and places. Thus, when the disease we call syphilis was first encountered in Europe in the late 1490s, it was labelled the Neapolitan or French disease, depending on where one happened to live. And, when the same disease arrived in India, with Portuguese sailors, it was called firangi roga, or the disease of the Franks (a term synonymous with “European”). The influenza that spread around the world from 1889 to 90 was dubbed the “Russian Flu” (for no good reason) and the same was true of the “Spanish Flu” of 1918 to 19. It is safe to assume they were not called these names in Russia or Spain.

We are still inclined to think of epidemic disease as coming from somewhere else, brought to our doorstep by outsiders. Moreover, notions of infection first developed within a religious framework – pestilence came to be associated with vengeful deities who sought to punish transgressors or unbelievers. In the European plagues of 1347 to 51 (the “Black Death”), Jews were made scapegoats and killed in substantial numbers. It was said that their presence was an abomination to the Christian god. In later centuries, gypsies, merchants, and practitioners of “unwholesome” trades were added to the ranks of scapegoats.

Remnants of such beliefs endure, as we have seen in claims that Ebola has been sent to rid the world of gays, atheists, and others of whom God apparently disapproves. But the Black Death began a process whereby disease was gradually, albeit partially, secularized. With nearly half the population dead from plague, manpower was precious and many rulers attempted to preserve it, as well as to reduce the disorder which usually accompanied an epidemic. Disease became the trigger for new forms of intervention and social separation. Within states, it was the poor who came to be stigmatized as carriers of infection, on account of their supposedly unhygienic and ungodly habits. They were the object of measures to contain the spread of infection and also to some extent of charitable provision. But the threat of disease, at least in the first instance, appeared to come from without. States used diplomatic intelligence to assess the risks posed by communication with other cities or states. Sometimes an embargo was imposed on all movement from infected places or ships and their crews were placed in isolation, usually for 40 days. This practice was known as “quarantine.” Originating in Italian and Adriatic cities in the 1470s, it gradually spread throughout Europe and large facilities known as “lazarettos” were constructed to house people and merchandise from places suspected of infection.

These precautions flowed from recognition of the fact that disease followed trading routes and that plague emanated from countries in Asia, where it appeared to be endemic. But they were reinforced by a heavy blanket of prejudice, sometimes against the poor, sometimes against “the Turk,” a term which embraced the inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire and the Islamic peoples of Central Asia. The Ottoman lands were the gateway through which plague spread from the east and its rulers were seen as corrupt and fatalistic.

In Europe, too, plague became intimately associated with misgovernment. Countries began to use the accusation of disease to blacken the reputation of rival nations and damage their trade. Quarantines and embargoes became a form of war by other means and were manipulated cynically, often pandering to popular prejudice. The threat of disease was frequently used to stigmatise immigrants and contain marginalized peoples, especially as populations became more mobile during the nineteenth century. The actual numbers of immigrants turned away at inspection stations such as Ellis Island was relatively small but the emphasis placed on screening certain minorities helped shape public perceptions. During an epidemic of cholera in 1892, President Benjamin Harrison notoriously referred to immigrants as a “direct menace to public health,” singling out Russian Jews as a special danger. Chinese migrants were similarly branded when they arrived in California.

The 1800s were an unusually volatile period. Industrialization and urbanization strained social relations and brought enormous sanitary problems. Seemingly new diseases – like cholera – emerged out of nowhere. Ancient ones – like plague, which had been confined for many years to isolated pockets in Asia – returned with a vengeance. The appearance of both these diseases was regarded by some as a form of divine judgment. Others blamed ignorance, squalor, and superstition in their places of origin (India for cholera and China for plague). These prejudices were based partly only older ideas about the dangers of the orient but also reflected a new disdain for non-Western cultures, borne of the age of empire. These “Asiatic” diseases followed the contours of the new global economy, eased by modern technologies such as steamships and railways. They were the consequence not of oriental corruption but of the transformative powers of commerce, science and industry.

The response of Western nations to this maelstrom of disease was to erect barriers to infection. They tried to create a kind of sanitary “buffer zone” in the Middle East and imposed strict quarantines against ports in Africa and Latin American which were regularly infected with yellow fever. But as the global economy matured constraints such as quarantine and embargoes became cumbersome. The panicky response to the re-emergence of plague in the 1890s, in cities such as Hong Kong, Bombay, Sydney and San Francisco, created enormous disruption. Trade came to a standstill and many businesses were destroyed. Great Britain and the U.S. proposed a different way of dealing with disease based less on stoppages and more on surveillance and selective intervention. Combined with sanitary reform in the world’s greatest ports, these measures were able to arrest epidemic diseases without disrupting commerce. The international sanitary agreements of the early 1900s marked a rare example of cooperation in a world otherwise fractured by imperial and national rivalries.

In a globalized world, it is simply not feasible to isolate places which appear to present a higher risk of infection. To do so would devastate their economies and detrimentally affect ours. The spill over of refugees and political instability from imploding states likewise has ramifications far beyond the afflicted countries themselves. We should also remember that an effective response to plague and cholera depends not only on the containment of these diseases, but also on environmental and social improvements. The West was able rid itself of epidemic disease in precisely this way. The European powers also began to clean up their colonies, while the U.S. and the Rockefeller Foundation took similar measures in Latin America and the Philippines. Few would advocate a return to “sanitary imperialism,” but the risk of disease is heightened by a laissez-faire attitude to the welfare of other countries.

The present effort to contain Ebola will probably succeed now that more personnel and resources have been sent to the afflicted countries. But our long-term security depends on the development of a more robust global health infrastructure capable of pre-emptive strikes against emerging infections. If there is one positive thing to note about the reaction to Ebola it is that governments have responded, albeit belatedly, to growing public demand. A more inclusive, global identity appears to be emerging, with a substantially recalibrated understanding of our cross-border responsibilities in the realm of health. Whether this awareness and improvised crisis management translates into a long-lasting shift in how we tackle fast-spreading contagions remains an open question – a life-and-death one.

Mark Harrison is Professor of the History of Medicine and Director of the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, Oxford University. He is author of Contagion: How Commerce has Spread Disease (Yale University Press, 2013). He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME China

Why You Should Care About Obscure Asian Trade Pacts

U.S. President Barack Obama Visits China
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping after a joint press conference at the Great Hall of People in Beijing on Nov. 12, 2014 Feng Li—Getty Images

They will play an important role in determining America’s future in Asia

As the very name tells you, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing this week was mostly about business. And for good reason. Cross-Pacific trade — especially between Asia and the U.S. — is what made countries like China, Japan and South Korea as rich as they are today. So all of the national leaders who attended — from U.S. President Barack Obama to Russian President Vladimir Putin to China’s President Xi Jinping — are incentivized to promote freer exchange between their economies, and as a result, much of the talk at the summit regarded pacts aimed at further reducing barriers to exports and imports.

But these days, trade has also become a tool of geopolitical strategy, and that, too, showed itself at APEC. Different Pacific powers are pushing for different trade deals. How that competition plays out in coming years will help shape the region’s political and economic future — and most of all, the role the U.S. may play in Asia for decades to come.

China’s Xi is promoting a regional pact called the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP), which would build on the many overlapping free-trade agreements in East Asia. On Tuesday, he said that APEC countries “should vigorously promote” the FTAAP and “turn the vision into reality as soon as possible.” China made a bit of progress on this agenda. In their official communiqué, the APEC leaders pledged “to kick off and advance the process in a comprehensive and systematic manner” and set up a committee to undertake a two-year study on forming the FTAAP.

Meanwhile, Washington is advocating a rival trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-nation agreement that includes countries as far-flung as Japan and Chile — but, most importantly, excludes China. The U.S. sees the TPP as a way of redirecting trade toward America, while pressuring China to eventually conform to more market-oriented trade and business practices. Obama on Monday said that he saw “momentum building” toward the completion of the TPP.

Which one of these trade deals comes to fruition will have major implications. That’s because trade flows translate into political muscle. For much of the modern history of Asia, the U.S. was at the center of a vast trading network in which factories around the region manufactured goods exported to American consumers. But the position of the U.S. has declined in recent years. Only 14.2% of Asia’s merchandise exports were shipped to the U.S. in 2013, down from 23.7% in 2000, according to the Asian Development Bank. Meanwhile, as China’s economy has grown into the world’s second largest, it has started to transplant the U.S. as the main trading partner for many Asian countries, and that shift has added to Beijing’s political clout in East Asia — at the expense of the U.S.

Beijing wants to keep that trend going, hence the push toward the FTAAP. The U.S. would rather have the TPP, as a way of maintaining its own influence in East Asia and countering rising Chinese power. Right now, the U.S. has the edge. The TPP talks may be dragging on (mainly due to Japanese resistance to opening its highly protected agriculture sector), but they are very advanced, while China’s pact is just inching off the ground. Though China won a minivictory getting its deal a green light at APEC at all, the nod is just the tip-off to what promises to be a long, arduous process — which may or may not go anywhere in the end.

Further complicating matters is the need for the U.S. and China to cooperate on trade with each other. The U.S. market is critical to Chinese economic growth — China exported more than $440 billion worth of stuff to America last year alone — while access to China’s expanding middle class is no less important for the future of many U.S. companies. That leaves Beijing and Washington in the odd position of both competing over and signing onto trade deals. On Monday, the two hammered out a long-awaited understanding to expand the number of products covered under another pact, the Information Technology Agreement, or ITA. This bilateral step could lead to a much bigger trade deal at the World Trade Organization that promises to reduce tariffs on a wider array of IT goods, potentially giving a big boost to U.S. tech outfits.

What that shows is how the U.S. and China, despite their geopolitical contest for dominance in East Asia, ultimately have no choice but to do business. Whatever trade deals eventually win the day — the TTP, the FTAAP and so on — the world’s two biggest economies may have to create a few more acronyms they can share.

TIME China

China Wins Support for Asia-Pacific Trade Proposal

Barack Obama, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, arrive at the the APEC Summit plenary session at the International Convention Center, Yanqi, in Beijing on Nov. 11, 2014 Pablo Martinez Monsivais—AP

APEC leaders including U.S. President Obama and Russia's Vladimir Putin agreed to take a first step by launching a two-year study of the initiative

(HUAIROU, CHINA)— Leaders of Asia-Pacific economies agreed Tuesday to begin work toward possible adoption of a Chinese-backed free-trade pact, giving Beijing a victory in its push for a bigger role in managing global commerce.

In a joint statement after a two-day Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, the leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama and Russia’s Vladimir Putin agreed to take a first step by launching a two-year study of the initiative.

“This is a historic step in the direction of an Asia-Pacific free trade area,” said Chinese President Xi Jinping at a news conference.

China is promoting the proposed Free-Trade Area of the Asia Pacific despite U.S. pressure to wrap up other trade negotiations. Analysts see it as a response to a U.S.-led initiative, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes 12 countries but excludes China.

The APEC leaders also promised to work more closely to combat official corruption. That is a special concern for Beijing, which is stepping up efforts to pursue officials who flee abroad with stolen public money.

Beijing has launched a series of trade and finance initiatives in pursuit of a bigger role in U.S.-dominated economic and security organizations to reflect Beijing’s status as the world’s second-biggest economy.

APEC was the first major international gathering in China since Xi took power and gave Beijing a platform to lobby for a bigger leadership role.

On the eve of the summit, Beijing announced a free-trade agreement with South Korea. Also Monday, regulators approved a plan to open Chinese stock markets wider to foreign investors by linking exchanges in Hong Kong and Shanghai. That followed the weekend announcement of a $40 billion Chinese-financed fund to improve trade links between Asian economies.

Earlier this year, Beijing launched a regional development bank with 20 other governments. In May, Xi called for a new Asian structure for security cooperation based on a group that includes Russia and Iran but excludes the United States.

China says its motives are benign, but its growing economic weight as the top trading partner for most of its neighbors from South Korea to Australia could erode U.S. influence.

Tuesday’s meeting took place under elaborate security at a government conference center in wooded hills north of the Chinese capital.

In an effort to appear more open, organizers took the unusual step of allowing access from the press center to websites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube that usually are blocked by China’s extensive Internet filters.

The Asia-Pacific trade pact was first proposed by an APEC business panel but China took the lead in promoting it. It marks the first time Beijing has played a leading role in a multinational trade agreement.

“(The U.S.-led) TPP is being used to push aside China and to weaken China’s economic core status,” said Wu Xinbo, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. Promoting its own initiative “will give China a bigger right to speak in the Asia-Pacific — to have a new status.”

Obama said Monday the United States “welcomes the rise” of a prosperous, peaceful and stable China. Still, American officials chafe at Beijing’s insistence on promoting the Free-Trade Area of the Asia Pacific.

U.S. trade officials say the two proposals are not competitors. But they want Beijing to wrap up a U.S.-Chinese investment treaty and a separate agreement to lower barriers to trade in information technology. Washington and some other governments argued the Chinese proposal would be a distraction at APEC but Beijing made it the centerpiece of the meeting.

Few details of the U.S.-led proposal have been released but promoters say it would reduce or eliminate tariffs on most goods among the member countries. That might hurt China by encouraging member countries to trade more with each other.

Leaders of the nations involved in TPP talks, including the United States, Mexico, Japan and Australia, met Monday and issued a statement saying they were making progress. The talks have been delayed repeatedly by disputes over the sweeping nature of its market-opening proposals.

“We have instructed our ministers and negotiators to make concluding this agreement a top priority,” the statement said.

The initiative promoted by Beijing is less ambitious and is aimed at reducing conflict among overlapping trade agreements between pairs of Asia-Pacific economies.

It is a logical response to being excluded from the TPP, said Li Wei, an economist at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing.

“If the U.S. doesn’t want China to join the TPP, then China can form its own trade groups,” said Li.

Li also pointed to limits on access to U.S. markets for some Chinese technology companies such as Huawei Technologies Ltd., a maker of network switching gear, on security grounds.

“The world, with the U.S. leading, is retreating from free trade. It is moving into protectionism,” said Li. “If the U.S. is saying, I should be careful about who I have free trade with, then China should take a more liberalizing role.”

TIME Know Right Now

Obama Pushes for Tariff-Busting Trade Agreement in China

“We're here because we believe that our shared future is here in Asia”

President Barack Obama is in China for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. The last time he was in China was 2009.

While there, he will be pushing for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a U.S.-led agreement that encompasses 11 countries, which would eliminate tariffs on high-tech goods. China, however, is in favor of the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP).

“We’re here because we believe that our shared future is here in Asia,” Obama said in his speech at the summit Monday.

TIME China

Report: African Ivory Smuggled on China State Visit

Xi Jinping, Jakaya Kikwete
Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, shakes hands with his Tanzanian counterpart Jakaya Kikwete during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 24, 2014 Takaki Yajima—AP

Chinese-led criminal gangs allegedly conspired with corrupt Tanzanian officials to traffic huge amounts of ivory

(BEIJING) — An environmental watchdog says Chinese officials used a state trip by President Xi Jinping and other high-level visits to smuggle ivory out of Tanzania.

In a report released Thursday, the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency says Chinese-led criminal gangs conspired with corrupt Tanzanian officials to traffic huge amounts of ivory, some of which was loaded in diplomatic bags on Xi’s plane during a presidential visit in March 2013.

Chinese officials have not commented on the report, which comes at a time when the Chinese government has openly denounced illegal ivory trade.

The group says China is the world’s largest importer of smuggled tusks, and Tanzania is the largest source of poached ivory.

Illegal poaching has killed half of Tanzania’s elephants in the past five years.

TIME stocks

4 Things Alibaba’s IPO Tells Us About a Changing World Economy

An employee is seen behind a glass wall with the logo of Alibaba at the company's headquarters on the outskirts of Hangzhou, Zhejiang province
An employee is seen behind a glass wall at Alibaba's headquarters on the outskirts of Hangzhou, China, on April 23, 2014 Chance Chan—Reuters

The Chinese e-commerce giant launches one of the largest stock-market debuts in history — and points the way to our economic future

The story of Alibaba has already become legend. Fifteen years ago, Jack Ma, a former English teacher, and his co-founders set up their Internet company in an apartment in the Chinese city of Hangzhou, not far from Shanghai. Today, Alibaba’s online shopping sites in China — mainly Taobao and Tmall — handle twice as much merchandise as Amazon. The company’s initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange will bring in a haul of some $21.8 billion — bigger than Facebook’s — and values Alibaba at $168 billion — four times more than Yahoo.

When Alibaba’s shares start trading Friday, history will be made. And not just in the world of tech or stock markets. Alibaba’s IPO represents some much bigger trends shaping the world economy. Here are four things the IPO tells us about our economic future:

1. More and more of the world’s most prominent companies will be from the developing world.
We still have this image of China as one big factory floor where millions of poor people slog away on assembly lines churning out cut-rate toys, clothes and electronics. Sure, there are still factories like that, but ever more that low-cost manufacturing center guise is becoming the Old China. The world’s most populous nation is developing so rapidly that it is already producing companies that are major players in all sorts of industries. Lenovo is now the largest PC maker in the world, while Huawei is challenging the best of the West in telecom equipment.

Alibaba takes this trend to an entirely new level — out of manufacturing and into the realm of technology and services. Ma and his executive team have created a company that can be named in the same sentence as tech titans like Facebook and eBay. And Alibaba is not unique. Shenzhen-based Tencent, which operates the popular WeChat messaging service, is yet another Chinese Internet firm with global potential. The fact is the most powerful companies in the U.S. and Europe will increasingly have to contend with Chinese companies exploding onto the world stage. And China may be in the lead among the world’s emerging economies in this trend, but it is not alone. India has produced some IT firms that can compete with the world’s best, such as TCS and Infosys.

2. Emerging markets are creating blue chips.
Ever since the idea of investing in the developing world became popular in the early 1990s, there has been a line drawn between these “emerging markets” and the more established bourses of the U.S., Europe and Japan. Emerging markets were supposed to be riskier, where only the bolder of investors would dare tread, compared with the supposedly more trustworthy and less volatile options in New York City and London. The Alibaba IPO shows how that great wall is breaking down. That a company based in a town like Hangzhou can raise more money in its IPO than one based in Menlo Park, Calif., (Facebook) shows that investors are starting to treat firms from the developing world on par with those in the developed world. Of course, the stigma staining companies from China and elsewhere won’t go away overnight — Chinese companies that have listed in New York City have had a sad history of accounting disasters. But going forward, your stock portfolio is going to hold more companies with addresses in Shanghai, Mumbai, Istanbul and São Paulo.

3. Consumers in the developing world will rule the world.
The story of the global economy since the end of World War II has gone something like this: capitalizing on better transport and communications technology, world production shifted en masse to poor countries from rich countries like the U.S. Factories replaced rice paddies in South Korea, China, Indonesia and elsewhere, which then shipped the mobile phones, computers and sneakers manufactured there to store shelves in the U.S. and Europe. The billions of people in these poorer nations couldn’t afford much of the stuff they made.

Now the global economy is “rebalancing.” Consumption in the U.S. and Europe is constrained by weaker job prospects and stagnant wages, while disposable income in China and other developing nations is increasing in leaps and bounds. That is making consumers in these countries the new engine of global economic growth. If the U.S. consumer dominated the 20th century, the Chinese and Indian consumer will control the 21st.

Alibaba is a prime example of the power of these new, emerging consumers. In 2013, Chinese shoppers bought $248 billion of stuff on Alibaba’s retailing websites. Compare that to an estimated $110 billion worth of good purchased on Amazon — globally. Increasingly, it will be companies that sell to households in Beijing, New Delhi and Jakarta that will dominate global consumer industries.

4. Your next job may be at a Chinese or Indian company.
Jack Ma has said that he plans to use some of his multibillion haul from the IPO to expand Alibaba’s presence in the U.S. and Europe. This, too, is part of a trend. Companies from developing markets are becoming more important investors around the world. According to the American Enterprise Institute, Chinese companies have invested more than $500 billion around the world since 2005 — with the U.S. the top destination.

And as companies from China, India and other emerging economies become ever bigger and bigger global investors, they will become bigger and bigger global employers. Firms like Lenovo, Huawei, carmakers Geely and Tata, appliance maker Haier and a host of others already employ thousands between them around the world. Going forward, you might just find your best job opportunity is at a company like Alibaba, based in China, rather than a firm in New York City, Paris or Frankfurt.

TIME India

Why the World’s Most Powerful Leaders Really Love India

Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping walk for a meeting in New Delhi, India, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014. Manish Swarup—AP

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India highlights the geopolitical contest reshaping Asia

Some of the world’s most important people are wooing India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi like teenage boys drooling over the homecoming queen. Less than a month ago, Modi was feted in Japan on his five-day official visit, during which he even received an unexpected hug from usually stiff Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This week, Modi is hosting China’s President Xi Jinping, who upon his arrival in the country on Wednesday, proclaimed that Beijing wishes “to forge a closer development partnership and jointly realize our great dreams of building strong and prosperous nations.”

Why has Modi become so popular? The reason can be found in how Asia is changing, politically and economically. Ever since China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping launched his country’s remarkable economic miracle in the early 1980s, the old Cold War divisions in the region melted away amid increasing economic integration. According to the Asian Development Bank, trade between Asian countries accounted for 50% of their total trade in 2013, up from 30% in 1985. But with China flexing the political and military muscles it has acquired from growing wealth, Asia is becoming split into two camps once again – one centered on China, the other on the U.S. and its allies, including Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. Each side is looking to bolster its support in the region in order to gain leverage on the other. Tokyo, embroiled in a tense stand-off with Beijing over disputed islands in the East China Sea, is looking to build a network of allies to “contain” a rising China. Meanwhile, Beijing is aiming to create a power bloc of its own in the region to counteract U.S. influence.

India has become a key wild card in this new geopolitical power game. As a rising power in its own right, and a huge potential source of new business in everything from espressos to expressways, whichever side manages to lure New Delhi into its orbit will tilt the scales in its favor.

Both camps are making their best pitch. Japan’s Abe took the unusual step of traveling from Tokyo to the historic city of Kyoto to personally welcome Modi to the country. Xi ventured all the way to Modi’s home state of Gujarat on this visit, even donning an Indian-style vest. Abe sent off Modi with a promise of $33 billion of new investment. Xi is reportedly planning to top that during his India visit, dangling an even bigger package of $100 billion.

On purely economic grounds, you’d think Xi has an advantage in his quest for Modi’s favor. Trade between the two has exploded, to nearly $66 billion in 2013 from a mere $1.2 billion in 1996. Their economic links will likely continue to strengthen as Chinese companies become more and more important global investors and Chinese consumers more and more important customers. The world’s two most-populous nations would appear to have many economic interests in common as well. Their companies, accustomed to operating in an emerging economy and selling to emerging consumers, are attracted to the potential of each other’s markets. China’s Xiaomi, for instance, has successfully lured Indian customers to its cut-rate smartphones as it has in China. Wouldn’t Modi be wise to hitch his country to the world’s rising power, rather than Japan, a declining one? That would bring to life the economic power of what’s been termed “Chindia.”

But China-India relations are more complicated than that. After India’s independence in 1947, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru thought his new nation would find a friend in newly communist China. The spirit of the times was captured in the phrase Hindi Chini bhai-bhai, or “Indians and Chinese are brothers.” That hope was dashed, however. India has incensed China by allowing Tibet’s Dalai Lama, who Beijing considers a dangerous separatist, to reside in exile in India. Modi, in fact, invited Tibet’s prime minister-in-exile to his inauguration in May. Relations are also continually roiled by border disputes. In 1962, the two fought a nasty border war, and the causes of that conflict linger to this day. The two countries contest land along their border in India’s far north in Ladakh, while China claims India’s eastern province of Arunachal Pradesh. China perennially irritates India over these unresolved issues. Just last week, only days before Xi’s much-heralded visit, India charged that Chinese troops are building a road in the contested territory in Ladakh. In talks with Xi on Thursday, Modi urged the Chinese President to finally resolve their border disagreements.

Such tensions are clearly weighing on Modi’s mind. He has apparently embarked on a mission to upgrade India’s military capabilities and relationships. Abe and Modi during their recent summit agreed to strengthen military ties, and in August, New Delhi and Washington pledged to do the same during U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s visit to India. One of the first economic reforms Modi announced after becoming Prime Minister was easing restrictions on foreign investment into India’s defense sector, a move aimed at bolstering its technology and production capacities. It is an open secret who is the target of all these military moves. While in Japan, Modi took a swipe at an assertive China when he told business leaders in Tokyo that “everywhere around us, we see an 18th century expansionist mind-set: encroaching on another country, intruding in others’ waters, invading other countries and capturing territory.”

Modi, then, is attempting to have his halwa and eat it, too — playing off both sides to win as many goodies as he can. In his quest to restart India’s economic miracle by building much-needed infrastructure and boosting manufacturing, Modi will need all the money he can get — from China, the U.S., Japan and anyone else who is offering. India has always been wary of trying itself too tightly into any one political camp — during the Cold War Nehru was the leading figure behind what was known as the “nonaligned movement.” The question is how long Modi can play one side off the other. We may find out soon enough. Later this month, Modi will travel to Washington to meet with President Barack Obama. Let’s see what goodies he picks up there.

TIME India

Why India’s Modi and Japan’s Abe Need Each Other — Badly

India's PM Modi shakes hands with Japan's PM Abe during a signing ceremony at the state guest house in Tokyo
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a signing ceremony in Tokyo on Sept. 1, 2014 Shizuo Kambayashi—Reuters

The two Asian leaders are looking to strengthen ties during their meetings in Japan to counter a rising China

Cuddly is not an adjective that comes to mind when describing the Prime Ministers of either Japan or India. Shinzo Abe, like most Japanese politicians, often appears overly formal, while Narendra Modi has a reputation for being demanding and stern. But apparently the two feel warm and fuzzy about each other. Abe made the unusual gesture of welcoming Modi on his five-day official visit to Japan with an uncharacteristic hug. After that, the duo chatted over an informal dinner and strolled through a temple in the historic cultural center of Kyoto.

The leaders of Asia’s two most prominent democracies have good reasons to cozy up. Greater cooperation between India and Japan could prove critical in helping Abe and Modi achieve their economic goals at home and their strategic aims in the region — which means countering an aggressive China. That’s why the two have gushed about the importance of the India-Japan relationship. Modi said in a statement that his visit would “write a new chapter” in relations, while Abe in a Monday press conference said that their bilateral ties have the “most potential in the world.”

They have a lot of catching up to do. For economies of such size — Japan and India are the second and third largest in Asia, respectively — their exchange is still relatively small. Trade between the two reached only $15.8 billion in 2013 — a mere quarter of India’s trade with China. Japanese direct investment into India totaled $21 billion between 2007 and 2013, making Japan an extremely important investor for the country. But recently, the inflows have tapered off amid India’s economic slowdown. Over the past three years, Japanese firms have invested more in Vietnam and Indonesia than India.

That may be about to change. The fact is that the economic interests of the two nations dovetail nicely. Modi is looking to restart India’s slumbering economic growth by upgrading its woeful infrastructure, strengthening its manufacturing base and constructing a network of new “smart” cities across the nation — all of which Japanese money, technology and investment can help make a reality. Abe on Monday pledged $33 billion of financing and investment for India from public and private sources over the next five years. “Japanese trade and investment ties with India are set to strengthen significantly over the next decade and beyond,” Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist for consulting firm IHS, predicted in a recent report.

Meanwhile, Abe is trying to jump-start a Japanese economy that has been stalled for two decades, and badly needs new sources of exports and revenue for ailing Japan Inc. India, with its 1.2 billion increasingly wealthy consumers and bottomless investment opportunities, can provide just what Japan requires. That is especially the case due to Tokyo’s souring relations with that other Asian giant, China. As tensions have risen over disputed islands in the East China Sea, investment and trade between China and Japan has deteriorated.

China is pressing Tokyo and New Delhi closer together for other reasons as well. Abe is trying to forge ties with countries across the region to contain a rising and increasingly assertive China. Meanwhile, Modi, who has his own territorial disputes with Beijing on India’s borders in the far east and north, is aiming to enhance the country’s military capabilities. Much of a joint declaration signed by the Prime Ministers dealt with strategic cooperation. The two pledged to “upgrade and strengthen” their partnership in defense by regularizing joint maritime exercises and collaborating on military technology.

China wasn’t specifically mentioned in the declaration, but which country Abe and Modi have in mind is no secret. Modi, in fact, took a clear swipe at Beijing in a speech to businessmen on Monday. “Everywhere around us, we see an 18th century expansionist mind-set: encroaching on another country, intruding in others’ waters, invading other countries and capturing territory,” Modi said.

None of this has gone unnoticed in the Middle Kingdom. An editorial in the state-run Global Times written in response to Modi’s comments attempted to downplay the friendly Abe-Modi summit. “The increasing intimacy between Tokyo and New Delhi will bring at most psychological comfort to the two countries,” the newspaper contended. “If Japan attempts to form a united front centered on India, it will be a crazy fantasy generated by Tokyo’s anxiety of facing a rising Beijing.”

Whether closer India-Japan ties are a fantasy will become apparent quickly. China’s President Xi Jinping is due to visit Modi in India later in September. Let’s see if he gets a hug.

TIME trade

It’s Time for Europe to Get Tough With Russia

European Union Foreign Ministers Meet On Ukraine Crisis
Flags of the European Union seen in front of the headquarters of the European Commission on March 03, 2014 in Brussels, Belgium. Michael Gottschalk—Photothek/Getty Images

Europe has a history of coming together in good times but not in bad. Think about the creation of the Eurozone, and the launch of the single currency, juxtaposed with the piecemeal policy reaction over the last few years to the Eurozone financial crisis. This tendency has been on tragic display recently, with the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines jet that carried numerous European passengers. This event should have strengthened European resolve to put more and tougher sanctions on Russia. Instead, it’s led to half-hearted measures doled out on a country-by-country basis. France is even going ahead with big deal to supply warships to Russia.

The key issue, of course, is that Europe is in very deep with the Russians economically, much deeper than the U.S. Or China, for that matter; The recent Russia-China gas deal was small potatoes compared to the business that the Europeans do. Europeans get about 30 percent of their gas from Russia, and are dependent on other natural resources, like oil and minerals, from Russia too. Indeed, the Netherlands, which lost more people than any European country in the crash, took in the largest share of those exports from Russia last year. They aren’t alone—German banks and multinationals do lots of business with Russia, and countries like the UK are a big destination for oligarchs looking to stash cash outside their home country.

That’s why it’s so crucial that European foreign ministers come together at their meeting over the Ukraine situation and Russian sanctions in Brussels. Until they are on board with more serious sanctions, particularly in the energy sector, it’s unlikely that the current rounds are going to make a serious dent in the Russian economy, which, as a recently Capital Economics report pointed out, still has a strong international investment position.

The bottom line is that Europe needs a much smarter and less Russia-centric energy strategy. As I’ve explained before, that’s a need that’s unlikely to filled by the gas rich US anytime soon. Rather it’s something that will have to be driven internally within Europe. It’s an opportunity not only for Europe to become more secure, but to prove to the rest of the world that it can work together and live up to the promise of the EU itself—in both good times and bad.

TIME China

The U.S. Has Good Reason to Be Fed Up With China’s Economic Policy

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew listens during a panel discussion at the North American Energy Summit in the Manhattan borough of New York
U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew listens during a panel discussion at the North American Energy Summit in the Manhattan borough of New York, June 10, 2014. Adam Hunger—Reuters

Talks in Beijing between American and Chinese officials made little progress on key economic issues

No one expected big breakthroughs from the latest round of the annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, held this week in Beijing. But the results didn’t even meet those lowly expectations. After two days of talks with Chinese officials, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew left empty-handed. A much-coveted but long-discussed treaty to boost investment between the two countries only inched forward. Nor did China offer firm commitments to further liberalize its currency — an issue of great importance to Washington. That apparently left Lew searching for something positive to say to his Chinese hosts. “The commitments China has made here in Beijing over the past two days reflect the economic reform goals set forth” previously, Lew said on Thursday, “and we look forward to future progress.”

Washington has been waiting for progress for quite a while. U.S. officials have been repeatedly pressing Beijing to open markets wider to American companies, improve the protection of intellectual property, and make the economy more transparent and market-oriented. But in return, Washington just gets vague pledges and expressions of caution. Meanwhile, the two continue to bicker over trade practices — most notably these days, Washington’s punitive tariffs on Chinese solar panels. The stalemate in economic ties between the U.S. and China is symbolic of the greater strain between the two nations. China has responded angrily to U.S. charges that its military cyberspies on American companies, while officials from both sides have exchanged hostile barbs over China’s territorial disputes with Japan and other neighbors. Relations between the U.S. and China are arguably at their lowest point in years.

That’s bad news. What happens between the world’s two largest economies has ripple effects around the world. Each country, furthermore, needs the other for its own economic growth. U.S. companies require access to Chinese consumers to keep their profits growing, while China badly needs advanced U.S. technology to upgrade its industry. Still, the two sides often look upon each other warily. As China’s clout increases, the U.S. is frustrated that Beijing is not making the Chinese economy more open or playing by the perceived rules of international commerce. Beijing’s policymakers get upset when Washington badgers them on reforms they consider none of America’s business.

But the U.S. has good reason to be annoyed. Many of the issues that matter to Washington have been dragging on interminably with no resolution in sight. Take, for instance, the sticky issue of China’s currency, the yuan. Washington has complained for many years that Beijing manipulates the value of the yuan to promote its own exports, and during this week’s meetings, Lew again pressed his Chinese counterparts to make the process by which it is valued more market-driven. Though I have written on many occasions that the U.S. has exaggerated the impact the yuan’s value has had on the country’s trade deficit with China, Lew has a right to be fed up with the slow pace of change. The Chinese have been blabbering about allowing market forces to determine the yuan’s exchange rate for ages, and the reform is considered an integral part of China’s greater goal of liberalizing capital flows in and out of the country. But the government still wields tremendous influence over the direction of the yuan — a degree of control is has been reluctant to relinquish, promises aside. In this week’s meetings, China offered only more excuses. “If we move too fast, we will be tripped by the demons of details,” Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang cryptically responded to Lew. Instead, Wang said Beijing was looking for “balance.”

“Balance,” however, has become Beijing-speak for “do nothing.” Currency reform is only one of many changes Chinese policymakers have promised, but never seem to implement. President Xi Jinping and his team have pledged to liberalize markets, fix the financial sector and allow private businessmen a bigger role in the economy. Economists swooned over a bold policy document released in November that committed the leadership to a sweeping reformation of China’s economic system. No one should expect such major changes to happen overnight, of course. But the fact is we’re still waiting for the process to really get started. Meanwhile, the Chinese economy is facing a host of unresolved problems that threaten its future. Growth has slowed, debt has mounted to dizzying levels, the financial sector is fundamentally flawed, and a property bubble appears to be bursting.

What Lew wants to see from China is a true effort to overhaul an economic model that is badly broken. That would be good for China, the U.S., and everybody else.

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