Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Chinese Dragon?

Cynical Nerd shared with me a Der Spiegel article on China. The piece highlights China's meteoric rise and predicts the start of a new Chinese century, one that would replace Pax Americana. The Chinese economy grew at an average annual rate of 9% in the past 25 years while Chinese exports to the United States had climbed 1,200% since 1990. China's foreign exchange reserves are estimated at US$ 710 billion. This is more than India's GDP! The United States trade deficit with China had doubled to US$ 162 billion since 2001. This deficit is poised to widen further in 2006. Der Spiegel adds that 440,000 engineers graduate in China each year, which is more than twice that in the United States.

The article refers to Chinese manufactures of cell phones, refrigerators and computers. Chinese firms purchased the computer wing of IBM, endeavored to buy the home appliance producer Maytag and almost bought over the California-based Unocal oil company, a move that was thwarted due to Congressional opposition in Washington. The Chinese had earlier purchased the Canadian oil firm, Petrokazakhstan, for a hefty sum of US$ 4.2 billion. Der Spiegel mentions that China had transformed bloated state-run companies into hard hitting enterprises while its biggest auto-parts producer, Wanxiang, had sales to the United States that exceeded US$ 400 million each year. It then refers to the "turbocharged breed of unbridled capitalism" poised to dominate international energy markets.

This is indeed an impressive account, one that Indian policy makers need to be mindful of. I would add that the nationalistic zeal in China ensures continued funding of an ambitious space program, investment in defence and success in international sports. The Chinese are investing in international energy, be it in Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Burma, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan and Sudan. China will no doubt be a significant player in international politics while its economy will continue to register high rates of growth. Any traveler to Beijing or Shanghai can not but be impressed at the rise of the Chinese dragon. The contrast with Delhi and Mumbai is evident. However, Der Spiegel misses out on other crucial pieces of the jig saw puzzle where predictions of a new Chinese century might be premature. Here's why.

For one, China lacks the intellectual space for cutting edge research and development. Its education system does not provide for creative innovation and discovery, the development of new technology and scientific breakthrough. It is still dependent on the United States in this respect, be it with regards to aviation, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, software or telecommunications. Like Japan of yesteryear, China excels in the mass manufacture of cheap consumer appliances designed elsewhere, but its system is not well positioned to develop innovative technology.

Two, China lacks the institutional resilience and legal systems that the North Atlantic states enjoy. While its low cost consumer items might have a field day in western markets, the absence of entrenched legal and institutional structures undermines the potential to create, innovate and discover - vital components of the capitalist world.

Three, China's coastal provinces have done extremely well. Fujian, Guangong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang stand out in this regard. Its landlocked interior provinces, however, lag behind in economic and social indicators. Recent accidents in the coal sector illustrate the travails of China's rust belt. The rates of poverty are significant inland. The " Chinese Mezzogiorno" is likely to impede continued economic take off. Vastly differential rates of economic growth between two sections of the same country bode ill for political stability.

Four, I remain skeptical of the overall health of China's banking sector. The state run banks are not subject to the same scrutiny and audit safeguards that financial institutions in the North Atlantic are governed by. Chinese accounting standards have much to be desired. There are reports of double counting and consequent exaggerated revenue figures, not to mention the lack of adequate watchdog functions in the system.

Five, China's restive Tibet and East Turkestan (i.e. Xinjiang in Chinese parlance) are likely to pose problems. Neither territory is ethnic Han Chinese by self-definition and would opt to secede if given the chance. China countered this possibility by settling several hundred thousand Han Chinese in the two regions. But settlers are unlikely to preempt the possibility of secession as witnessed in the recent history of Estonia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Even if Islamist extremism were to fade away, a pan-Turkic consciousness is likely to ensure a modicum of sympathy for the Uighurs in the years to come. Furthermore, the question of Tibet would always remain on the international radar screen as the prime example of Chinese hegemony and imperialism.

And lastly, India, Japan, Taiwan, Russia and Vietnam, economically influential in their own right, will not accept Chinese hegemony. The People's Republic - unlike the United States - is encircled. I mention these factors not to deny the inevitable rise of China. The Chinese economy will continue to grow while its international profile is likely to be further strengthened. But to trumpet the dawn of a new Chinese century might be premature. Der Spiegel should perhaps study Asia more closely.

8 comments:

Jing said...

I agree mostly with you on points 1, 2, and 3.

Point 4 has a caveat. Although China's banks are still iffy, the total percentage of non-performing loans has been steadily decreasing since the "scare" of 2000 and just as significantly, the government has plenty of cash to bail them out if neccessary.

Point 5 I don't particularly agree on. The chances of Xinjiang (Using the term "East Turkestan" is a sop to the separatists. The area has been under the designation of Xinjiang for over 200 years. Only a small sector of Xinjiang was known as "East Turkestan" for only a brief number years during the Republic) or Tibet secceeding are somewhere between fat chance and not bloody likely. The "settlers" persay do not number in the hundreds of thousands but rather millions in Xinjiang and have reached parity with the other sizeable population, the Uighurs. The TAR is still overwhelmingly Tibetan, though the Free Tibet advocates claim that they are now outnumbered by Han Chinese. Their figure is probably derived from the large floating population of migrant workers who have arrived in Tibet but will almost certainly not settle there. Explaining why seccession is not very likely will commit me to an essay which I'm not particularly fond of writing right about now. Suffice it to say that the political structures of the former Soviet republics differ than from China. The demographics are different. Most important of all, the political climate is different. Barring some democratic political vault face, the PRC will use the heavy military presence to insure cohesion. The Soviets chose not to use the Red Army to retain eastern Europe. (The central Asian stans did not vote to seceed but rather they inhereted independence as a result of Soviet disintegration which explains why they have continued to be governed for some time by former Communist Party strongmen while the Baltic states have done away with the legacies of the Soviet Union.

Your sixth point is half right. India and Japan will certainly not relish Chinese hegemony in Asia nor would Russia. However in this case, I do not believe Russia would be actively hostile, but more of a neutral player. Vietnam on the other hand has seemed to have made accomodation with the PRC. Certainly there are areas of contention and historical antagonism, but when confronted with the choices of either bandwagoning or joining an opposing coalition, the proximity of Chinese strength seems to have outweighed other considerations. Taiwan on the other hand is a special case. Suffice it to say, with a KMT government rather than DPP, it is highly likely that Taiwan will be brought into China's orbit.

Jaffna said...

Jing,

Thank you for the comment. This is food for thought.

The Japan factor needs greater study. Koizumi's repeated visits to the Yasakuni shrine and his earlier hints at the need for Japan to participate in international military activity indicate that at least some sections of the Japanese polity would like to revise elements of that country's post-war constitution i.e. the separation of religion and politics, and the pacifist clauses.

I believe that China looms large in Japanese strategic thinking and hence the rethink. Japan in many ways is an island nation - like Britain - that borrowed extensively from its continental neighbors (I include Korea here) but remains detached and uncomfortable at continental dynamics. We might see increased Indo-Japanese cooperation intended in part to neutralize China.

Red said...

It's interesting to follow China's incursions into Africa. Perhaps best expressed through Robert Mugabe's dictat that all college students in Zimbawe must demonstrate mastery over Mandarin before graduation.

Interesting take on Chinese fears abou t India here

http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/display.article?id=5499

Preetam Rai said...

Younger Tibetans and Uighurs are more interested in integrating themselves with the Chinese economy. I don't think we will see large scale seperatism soon. China has done a decent job providing economic incentives to its minorities.

The sheer number of Japanese students in China ensures that the future of Sino-Japan relation is optimistic. The shrine visit and the textbook issues do come up from time to time but you do not see a drop in business visitors. I agree with Jing on Vietnam - they will not want to antagonise China -rather, prefer to enjoy the increase in tourism from China.

Jaffna said...

Preetam,

I would be eager to know the source of your assertion that young Tibetans and Uighurs are keen to integrate into the Chinese mainstream. How would you explain the intermittent reports of unrest in East Turkestan/Xinjiang despite the blanket press censorship and inability of the international media to travel there, not to mention repeated United States censure of the Chinese human rights record in that province? Moreover, a lot of Tibetan expatriates would disagree with you on young Tibetans wanting to integrate into the Chinese mainstream. As for the "Chinese providing economic incentives for its minority population" how would you explain the fact that poverty levels in Tibet are perhaps the worst in China?

Likewise, how would you explain continued and repeated instances of Sino-Japanese friction be it over disputed islands in the East China sea, Japanese history textbooks, massive Chinese demonstrations against the latter and the issue that the Yasakuni shrine appears to be a major political and legal issue in Japan? I think that Sino-Japanese friction is here to stay and the United States intends to back Japan as a means to counter China.

About Vietnam, I am still not convinced although I would need to study it more. The roots of Sino-Vietnamese friction go way back in history and can not be wished away. This said, both Jing and you have a point that the benefits of economic integration might well outweight historical antagonism.

Harsha said...

Putting aside political tensions China certainly managed a huge leap in it's economy when most of it's neighors are sleeping (and still), spectacular performance on any scale.

there may be tensions when china reclaims taiwan and HK backed by strong economic will, tensions remain short term and subside eventually.

be it a chinese century or not, china is going to have a major say in international areana. does it really matter if you stay first or second in a class of 194 countries?

Jaffna said...

Harsha,

I largely agree with you. But one can not deny the challenges China faces. I recount these as they are relevant to Indian policy makers. The international tensions you refer to are not short-term. Neither are they limited to Taiwan and Hong Kong. They impact on India in a very real sense. Too many in Singapore (and that includes my family, btw) seem to realize that.

Best

Jaffna said...

Oops, quick correction: "too many in Singapore seem NOT to realize that".

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