“Since Sultan Mahmud Shah of 15th-century Malacca at least, Malay rulers have had no problems with a powerful China“.
MANY people can be so absorbed by specific issues as to neglect the larger picture that created them. Thus much misunderstanding persists of the issues themselves.
This failure to see the wood for the trees also affects many professional analysts or “country watchers”.
Putting issues in the news in their proper context is crucial.
In the late 1980s, economic growth in East Asia had become both contagious and self-evident. Talk of the coming 21st century as “the Century of Asia and the Pacific” had been gathering momentum.
After Japan’s stellar economic performance from the 1970s, rapid growth would visit the East Asian “tigers” – Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan – then the other countries of South-East Asia and then China.
Few countries at the time could see that never before in history had both Japan and China, old rivals with their historical baggage still in hand, achieve economic ascendancy at the same time like now – but Malaysia was one of them.
Since economic strength meant diplomatic and political clout, tensions between Tokyo and Beijing could grow to unmanageable proportions with potentially devastating effects throughout the region.
Something had to be done to anticipate and contain any such fallout.
In December 1990, on the occasion of the visit to Malaysia by Chinese Premier Li Peng, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad proposed the formation of the East Asia Economic Grouping (EAEG).
This would comprise all the countries of South-East Asia and China, Japan and South Korea working together towards a more integrated regional economy.
Since economics was less controversial than politics, the EAEG would skirt political sensitivities while a culture of working together as a region could in time overcome them.
Such regional cooperation that acknowledges and encourages regional integration could also pre-empt and minimise any economic crisis.
But that was not to be. Australia and the US had not been included and opposed the EAEG, the latter also pressuring Japan to reject it.
Within Asean, Indonesia’s Suharto rebuffed it because as senior regional leader he had not been consulted, while a West-leaning Singapore still preferred Occidental leadership to anything so distinctly Asian.
Singapore then proposed a watered-down East Asia Economic Caucus (EAEC), this compromise being a subset of the larger Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) grouping largely to assuage US insecurities. After the EAEG died, the EAEC withered away.
By 1997 a financial and economic crisis struck East Asia, devastating the economies of Indonesia, Thailand and South Korea in particular.
There was no regional grouping or bank to help deflect, absorb or otherwise mitigate it.
South Korea then stepped up the drive to form an Asean Plus Three (APT) grouping, with the EAEG’s same 13 countries. The crisis also gave China an opportunity to demonstrate regional leadership: it suspended its planned currency revaluation, thereby helping to cushion the shock of the crisis.
Throughout the whole long-drawn saga, the unspoken issue for some countries was the impending economic dominance of China that they could not accept.
Thus they opposed the EAEG, as if China’s economic dominance could be restrained in the absence of a regional grouping. The reality would have been quite the reverse: with South Korea and Japan balancing China, and Asean countries at the fulcrum.
Meanwhile an underlying Western presumption shared by West-leaning Asians is that once China achieves economic ascendancy, it would mimic the West in acquiring overseas colonies and generally throwing its weight around.
That remains a heavily constructed hypothesis at odds with the history of China and the region.
China had been a great maritime power before, but had never embarked on naval conquest in a region where naval power trumps all other strategic options.
And through the years of talk on the EAEG, EAEC and APT, China’s economy kept on growing.
Then came China’s massive projects resulting from, and further empowering, that growth: the New Silk Road Economic Belt (“One Belt, One Road”) linking Asia and Europe overland, the Maritime Silk Road at sea, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank to fund them.
In contrast only Indonesia’s still formative and insular “maritime highways” idea, just a tiny fraction of China’s proposals in scale albeit grandly positioning Indonesia as a Global Maritime Fulcrum, appears to be the only response from the region.
Why has the rest of South-East Asia, or East Asia in general, become mere passive spectators to China’s bold plans? Why have other countries not offered their own thought contributions in response to China’s proposals?
Indonesia has, through different presidential administrations, clung to its informal position as first among equals in Asean. It has foraged for opportunities lending it such a profile, though not always elegantly or consistently.
On President Joko Widodo’s first visit to Beijing for an Apec summit last November, one month after he became president, he asked that the AIIB be moved from Beijing to Jakarta. That was a non-starter.
He recovered some equilibrium last month on state visits to Japan and China. On the day of his arrival in Tokyo, an interview was published in Japan in which he said China had no legal basis to its South China Sea claims.
That was three days before his arrival in Beijing, where the news had preceded him. One day after his arrival there, a bilateral agreement had been fleshed out for full-scale economic cooperation.
Now that much of the dust has settled on which countries would, or would not, be founding members of the AIIB, the challenge of projecting possible futures begins.
The positives include there being more international support for the multilateral lending institution than expected, a good mix of countries in Asia and Europe, and that the bank will proceed unimpeded.
However, the negatives include the voluntary absences of the US and Japan, two major economies that would have made the bank more multilateral, better resourced and further enriched with the collective experience of multilateral lending.
Playing somewhere in the background is the Western-oriented anxiety that a militarily powerful China may one day edge the US out of the region.
That prospect goes against the grain of China’s deep policy pragmatism and interests.
US military dominance in East Asia is often credited for keeping the peace in the region.
That peace has meant unfettered transportation and travel that has benefited the region, most of all China, in its imports of fuel and raw materials and its exports of manufactured goods.
China has had ample opportunity to learn from the tragic errors of not just the Soviet Union but also neighbouring North Korea, where overspending on military assets only wrecks the economy. The same applies to the US itself in profligate spending on questionable foreign wars.
China’s focus on infrastructure for facilitating trade is clear, its economic priorities echoing those it has had for centuries. Since Sultan Mahmud Shah of 15th-century Malacca at least, Malay rulers have had no problems with a powerful China.
Such a China had prioritised economic growth and cooperation without meddling in local affairs except to provide protection against hostile outside powers.
There are still no indications that modern China would deviate significantly from such a position, other than perhaps “protection” today including cushioning the shocks of economic crises.
Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.
Winds of Change in Asia
The birth of new development banks led by developing countries and the United States’ failure to block them are signs of rebalancing of economic power, especially in Asia.
The world must adjust to the rise of new powers. It will not stop just because the United States can no longer engage. If the results are not to the United States’ liking, it only has itself to blame! – Martin Wolf
IN the last month, the international media has been carrying articles on the fight between the United States and China over the formation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
Influential Western economic commentators have supported China in its move to establish the new bank and judged that President Barack Obama made a big mistake in pressurising US allies to shun the bank.
The United States is seen to be scoring an “own goal” since its close allies the United Kingdom, Australia and South Korea decided to be founding members, as well as other European countries, including Germany and France, and most of Asia.
The United States also rebuked the United Kingdom for policies “appeasing China”, but the latter did not budge.
The United States did not give any credible reason why countries should not join the AIIB.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said the new bank would not live up to the “highest global standards” for governance or lending.
But that sounded like the pot calling the kettle black, since it is the lack of fair governance in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank that prompted China to initiate the formation of the AIIB, and the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) to similarly establish the New Development Bank.
For decades, the developing countries have complained that the developed countries have kept their grip on voting power in the Breton Woods institutions by clinging to the quotas agreed upon 70 years ago.
These do not reflect the vastly increased shares of the world economy that the emerging economies now have.
Even the mild reform agreed upon by all – that the quotas would be altered slightly in favour of some developing countries – cannot be implemented because of US Congress opposition.
The big developing countries have been frustrated. They had agreed to provide new resources (many billions of dollars each) to the IMF during the financial crisis, but were rewarded with no reforms in voting rights.
In addition, the unjustifiable “understanding” that the heads of the World Bank and IMF would be an American and a European respectively remains in place despite promises of change.
So much for legitimacy of lectures about good governance, merit-based leadership and democratic practice, which are preached by the Western countries and by the IMF and World Bank themselves.
The BRICS countries then set up the New Development Bank, which will supplement or compete with the World Bank, while China created the AIIB to supplement the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which also has a lopsided governance system.
The new banks will focus on financing infrastructure projects, since developing countries have ambitious infrastructure programmes and there is gross under-funding.
Critics anticipate that the new banks will finance projects that the World Bank or ADB would reject for not meeting their environmental and social standards.
But that is attacking something that hasn’t yet happened. True, it would be really bad if the new banks build a portfolio of “bad projects” that would devastate the environment or displace millions of people without recognising their rights.
It is thus imperative that the new banks take on board high social, environmental and fiduciary standards, besides having good internal governance and being financially viable.
The new institutions should be as good as or better than the existing ones, which have been criticised for their governance, performance and effects.
It is a high challenge and one that is worthy of taking on. There is no certainty that the new banks will succeed. But they should be given every chance to do so.
The AIIB, in particular, is being seen as part of the jostling between the United States and China for influence in the Asian region.
A few years ago, the United States announced a “pivot” or rebalancing to Asia. This included enhanced military presence and new trade agreements, especially the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA).
It seemed suspiciously like a policy of containment or partial containment of China. The United States combines cooperation with competition and containment in its China policy, and it retains the flexibility of bringing into play any or all of these components.
China last year announced its own two initiatives, a Silk Road Economic Belt (from Western China through Central Asia to Europe) and a 21st century Maritime Silk Road (mainly in South-East Asia).
The first initiative will involve infrastructure projects, trade and public-private partnerships, while details of the second initiative are being worked out.
The AIIB can be seen as a financial arm (though not the only one) of these initiatives.
China is also part of negotiations of the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) that does not include the United States.
Last year, it also initiated a study to set up a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, which will include the United States.
These two intended pacts are an answer to the US-led TPPA. It is still uncertain whether the TPPA will conclude, due both to domestic US politics and to an inability to reach a consensus yet among the 12 countries on many contentious issues.
Meanwhile, prominent Western opinion makers are urging the United States to change its policy and to accommodate China and other developing countries.
Former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers said this past month will be remembered as the moment the United States lost its role as the underwriter of the global economic system.
Summers cited the combination of China’s effort to establish a major new institution and the failure of the United States to persuade dozens of its traditional allies to stay out of it.
He also called for a comprehensive review of the US approach to global economics, and to allow for substantial adjustment to the global economic architecture.
Martin Wolf of the UK-based Financial Times said that a rebuff by the United States of China’s AIIB is folly. This is because Asian countries are in desperate need of infrastructure financing, and the United States should join the bank rather than pressuring others not to.
The real US concern is that China might establish institutions that weaken its influence on the global economy, said Wolf.
He added that this is wrong since reforms on influence in global financial institutions are needed and the world economy would benefit from more long-term financing to developing countries. China’s money could push the world in the right direction.
In a devastating conclusion, Wolf said the world needs new institutions.
“It must adjust to the rise of new powers. It will not stop just because the United States can no longer engage. If the results are not to the United States’ liking, it has only itself to blame.”
The winds of change are blowing in the global economy, and many in the West recognise and even support this.
> Martin Khor is executive director of the South Centre, a research centre of 51 developing countries, based in Geneva. You can e-mail him at email@example.com. The views expressed here are entirely his own.
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