[Viewpoint] A Korea that can say ‘no’?

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[Viewpoint] A Korea that can say ‘no’?

It’s not easy to be a head of a tribe of monkeys. Male monkeys test their strength whenever they get their chance, hoping to become the leader themselves. The leader can scare them off and fight back to protect his seat, but he cannot defend it forever.

At the end, he may have to step down and relinquish power, but the victor in that contest is not necessarily the strongest challenger. The victor could have just been shrewd or lucky enough to make his challenge soon after the leader waged a tough fight.

He would know the leader’s weaknesses and limits from the previous fight. The rules of the jungle apply to the global economy.

The United States dominated the global economy since the mid-20th century. Japan was next in line for the throne and a formidable challenger.

Japan, two decades ago and in the midst of an ebullient economy, was able to challenge the U.S. Thanks to sizzling equity prices and a strong yen, Japanese banks dominated the world’s top 10 list in market capitalization.

Japanese manufacturers became legends. Japan Inc. even joked that the U.S. couldn’t fire a missile without Japanese memory chips. Japanese people were proud and saw their country as a superpower for the first time since World War II.

Their pride was at its peak when Sony Corp. co-founder Akio Morita and politician Shintaro Ishihara published a 1989 essay entitled “The Japan That Can Say No.”

A subsequent 1991 book version that criticized American business practices and called for more independence and leadership from Japan sold like hotcakes in Korea and China as well.

Then the bubble started to burst in the 1990s. The Tokyo stock market lost a third of its value. Financial companies went broke and manufacturers shook.

In contrast, American financial companies benefited big by betting on a collapse of the Tokyo stock market. Mototada Kikkawa, in his book “Money Defeat,” likened the financial market’s demise in 1990s to Japan’s World War II defeat. Japan toppled by placing too much faith in overblown asset prices without backing from manufacturers that lacked original technology and software resources.

The next challenger to U.S. hegemony also comes from the Far East. China may be the shrewd challenger looking for an easy fight with the leader.

“The China That Can Say No” came out in 1996 and also became a best seller. But the book was more of an emotional outburst of nationalistic fervor. The Chinese economy posed little threat to the U.S. at the time. There were more people betting that China could collapse due to fragile leadership.

But China has built strength and competence over the years, and made a full display of its muscle last year. The Chinese economy remained resilient even as a financial meltdown in the U.S. rattled the global economy.

Chinese financial companies grew along with manufacturers, including five names in the global top 10. Chinese pride also soared, and the country defiantly refused repeated calls from the U.S. to allow the Chinese yuan to strengthen.

The book “China Is Not Happy,” expressing resentment toward the U.S., created a buzz last year.

So far the country is sailing along Japan’s trajectory. But the Chinese claim they are different from the Japanese and would not fall into the same pitfalls that Japan did.

China, in fact, has been very different from Japan in its ascent onto the global stage. It is more defiant and aggressive in contrast to Japan’s passiveness.

The country’s first credit rating agency, Dagong International Rating Co., earlier this week placed U.S. sovereign debt below the ranking of China’s in its first sovereign credit ratings. China’s government debt was rated 10th safest in the world and U.S.’s 13th.

Dagong Chairman Guan Jianzhong said his company was the first among non-Westerners to rate sovereign debt and he wants to challenge the dominance and abuses of Western credit rating agencies.

Many of the 250 employees at Dagong come from state think tanks, making the company quasi-government. China is directly challenging U.S. hegemony in financial markets via Dagong.

Audiences like a good fight. But somehow, we can’t enjoy this one. We are the last contestant from the Far East corner. Will our time to say no ever come?

*The writer is a business editor at JoongAng Sunday.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Yi Jung-jae
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