Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Asia Rising - Part Three





"Dictatorship Has Given Asia an Advantage."

No. Autocracies, mainly in East Asia, may seem to have made their countries prosperous. The so-called dragon economies of South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia under Suharto, and now China experienced their fastest growth under nondemocratic regimes. Frequent comparisons between China and India appear to support the view that a one-party state unencumbered by messy competitive politics can deliver economic goods better than a multiparty system tied down by too much democracy.

But Asia also has had many autocracies that have impoverished their countries-consider the tragic list of Burma, Pakistan, North Korea, Laos, Cambodia under the murderous Khmer Rouge, and the Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos. Even China is a mixed example. Before the Middle Kingdom emerged from self-imposed isolation and totalitarian rule in 1976, its economic growth was subpar. China under Mao also had the dubious distinction of producing the world's worst famine.

Even when you look at autocracies credited with economic success, you find two interesting facts. First, their economic performance improved when they became less brutal and allowed greater personal and economic freedoms. Second, the keys to their successes were sensible economic policies, such as conservative macroeconomic management, infrastructural investment, promotion of savings, and pushing exports. Dictatorship really has no magic formula for economic development.

Comparing a one-party state like China with a democracy such as India is not an easy intellectual exercise. Obviously, India has many weaknesses: widespread poverty, poor infrastructure, and minimal social services. China appears to have done much better in these areas. But appearances can be deceiving. Dictatorships are good at concealing the problems they create while democracy is good at advertising its defects.

So the autocratic advantage in Asia is, at best, an optical illusion.


"China Will Dominate Asia."

Not likely. China is on course to overtake Japan as the world's second-largest economy this year. As the regional economic hub, China is now driving Asia's economic integration. Beijing's diplomatic influence is expanding as well, supposedly thanks to its newfound soft power. Even China's once antiquated military has acquired a full plethora of new weapons systems and significantly improved its ability to project force.

Although it is true that China will become Asia's strongest country by any measure, its rise has inherent limits. China is unlikely to dominate Asia in the sense that it replaces the United States as the region's peacekeeper and decisively influences other countries' foreign policies. Its economic growth is also by no means guaranteed. Restive secession-minded minorities (Tibetans and Uighurs) inhabit strategically important areas that constitute almost 30 percent of Chinese territory. Taiwan, which is unlikely to return to China's fold anytime soon, ties down substantial Chinese military resources. The ruling Chinese Communist Party, which views perpetuating its one-party state as more important than overseas expansionism, is not likely to be seduced by delusions of imperial grandeur.

China has formidable neighbors in Russia, India, and Japan that will fiercely resist any Chinese attempts to become the regional hegemon. Even Southeast Asia, where China appears to have reaped the most geopolitical gains in recent years, has been reluctant to fall into China's orbit completely. Nor would the United States simply capitulate in the face of a Chinese juggernaut.

For complex reasons, China's rise has inspired fear and unease, not enthusiasm, among Asians. Only 10 percent of Japanese, 21 percent of South Koreans, and 27 percent of Indonesians surveyed by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs said they would be comfortable with China being the future leader of Asia.

So much for China's charm offensive.


p/s photos: Michelle Yip Shuen



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