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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Why Bow to China?

May 19, 2009

Many world leaders seem ready to cede Asian
supremacy to Beijing -- but China may not be ready for the role.
Christian Caryl
 From the magazine issue dated May 25, 2009

A growing chorus of pundits in Asia and the West
is declaring that China's moment has finally
arrived. Who can blame them? While the United
States is trying to fight a massive economic
contraction and to restore an image tarnished by
two seemingly endless wars, China is growing and
extending its influence. Throughout the Middle
Kingdom, the confidence is palpable. Last month
at the Boao Forum (Beijing's answer to Davos), a
series of Chinese speakers dispensed with their
usual modesty and derided Washington for its
financial mismanagement, calling for the
establishment of a new reserve currency to
replace the dollar and demanding more influence
in the global economic system. A few days later,
on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the
Chinese Navy, Beijing debuted two nuclear subs
and vowed that its blue-water force would soon
project power into the Pacific and beyond.

What's particularly striking about the rise of
China is how little anyone questions its
purported status as the first nation of Asia.
That's true even in Japan, which has an economy
10 times larger. The spectacle of Beijing's
playing a lead role at global summits, where
Tokyo is generally invisible, has been almost
universally greeted as an overdue promotion. More
and more, world leaders are quietly bowing to
China as the superpower with all the economic
momentum. This was the unspoken message when,
last month, French President Nicolas Sarkozy
apologized to Chinese President Hu Jintao for
meeting with the Dalai Lama, or when the U.S.
quietly stopped accusing China of manipulating
its currency. Newspapers from London to Seoul
have begun heralding China's emergence as a
global hegemon, and journalist Martin Jacques
recently predicted in The Guardian that Shanghai
would soon replace New York as "the world
financial center." He did not even mention
regional rivals like Tokyo, Singapore or Seoul.

Scholars like UCLA's David Kang even argue that
the rise of a Sinocentric world order could be a
positive, stabilizing development. For much of
the past two millennia, he notes, Asians took
Chinese dominance as a fact of life. And that
dominance was generally benign: while imperial
China expected its neighbors to acknowledge its
supremacy and pay it tribute, it otherwise mostly
left them alone. Chinese hegemony proved
remarkably stable and elastic, Kang says: "If you
look at history, you may not automatically
conclude that the bigger China gets, the more dangerous it is."

Perhaps. But it's worth asking whether China is
really ready to call the shots, even regionally.
Modern-day Asia is a messy, multipolar place that
doesn't lend itself to hierarchies. China is much
bigger than its neighbors in terms of the size of
its economy, but by other measures—technology,
per capita GDP or the strength of its
institutions—it's far from supreme. Asia watcher
Bill Emmott writes in his recent book, Rivals,
that China's growth has been plagued by wasteful
investment, massive capital export, bloated
foreign-exchange reserves and crippling
pollution. China's own prime minister, Wen
Jiabao, said recently that structural problems
are causing "unsteady, unbalanced, uncoordinated
and unsustainable development."

The China model is hardly superior to its rivals
for Asian leadership. Japan is far less corrupt
and better managed, and holds a vast
technological lead. While Japan's export-oriented
economy has taken a huge hit from the global
slowdown, its cash-rich companies have continued
to spend heavily on R&D in everything from
electronics to steel. Thus Japan now leads the
world in green-car technology, and China is not
likely to catch up. Charles Gassenheimer, CEO of
the U.S. green-car firm Ener1, says that Japan's
total investment in the development of
state-of-the-art batteries was 10 times greater
than America's every year in the decade after
1998, while China, by contrast, is only just
entering the game (albeit at a rapid pace).

Even South Korea -- a country that loves to fret
over its supposed status as a "shrimp between
whales" -- has emerged as a force, with one of
the world's most dynamic, innovative and
high-tech economies. In the recent International
Innovation Index, South Korea scored second in
the world, while China landed in 27th place. The
Korean example suggests that Asia today has
multiple leaders in different fields: China
excels at producing huge volumes of low-cost
products, but Japan and South Korea are tops in innovation and high-tech goods.

In many ways, the whole idea of a No. 1 is
becoming passé. Some experts argue that Asians
remain wedded to the idea because Confucian
tradition emphasizes respect for hierarchy and
order. But look at how Singapore is exploiting
the growing importance of information technology
to command a global role out of proportion to its
tiny size. Or at how global trade and the
Internet make it increasingly tough for Beijing
to maintain order at home. The global age does
not respect Confucian hierarchies.

Foreign-policy realists like to point out that
the region has never before known a period when
both China and Japan were strong at the same
time. They worry that this development could lead
to conflict, and fret that China's naval forces,
which could be bottled up by the Japanese island
chain in a conflict, have already taken to
probing Japan's defenses. Meanwhile Tokyo has
been beefing up its Coast Guard forces around
disputed islands and staging surveillance flights
over Chinese drilling rigs. Princeton political
scientist Aaron Friedberg compares modern Asia to
Europe in the 19th century, with great powers still jockeying for control.

Yet this point underlines just how far China is
from regional supremacy. No single nation was
able to dominate 19th-century Europe. Similarly,
it's not clear China would win even a small
conflict with Japan, much less a larger one that
drew in Japan's main ally. Consider: despite
years of double-digit increases in China's
defense budget, it will be at least a decade
before Beijing launches its first aircraft
carrier—the mark of a serious navy able to
project power. (The United States has 11.)

Of course, China disavows any desire for military
supremacy or economic tribute, and perhaps it
should be taken at its word. Much has been made
of how China and the U.S. are now fatefully tied
to one another as creditor-to-debtor and
seller-to-buyer. But the same is true of China
and Japan. China surpassed the United States as
Japan's No. 1 trading partner back in 2007. An
aging Japan benefits from low-wage Chinese
workers, while those factories in the Pearl River
Delta often rely on machine tools and technology
made in Japan. Global and regional cooperation
are very much in both countries' self-interest.

That doesn't mean there's no reason for neighbors
to prepare for a more aggressive China. Efforts
to create a regional self-defense organization
have been stymied by differences in wealth and
ideology and by fear of provoking Beijing. But
there are ways to promote an Asia of many powers.
The Obama administration seems to get this: when
Hillary Clinton visited Asia in February, she
made a point of hitting Japan first and then
Seoul, urging them to work together. Then came
Indonesia, a big new democracy. Only then did she
stop in Beijing, where she called on the Chinese
and Japanese to work together on climate change.
That's just the kind of transnational issue that
demands cooperation, not great-power
jockeying—the kind of increasingly common problem
that pays no attention to who's on top.

With Mary Hennock in Beijing
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