Rebalancing for the future

Updated: 2012-07-06 08:47

By Kerry Brown (China Daily)

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Economic power shifting to Asia, much of it to China

One of the great challenges for those trying to come to terms with China's increased economic and political importance is that there is no easy precedent. Never before has a developing country been the world's second-largest economy. In all sorts of other ways too, from the size of China's population to the speed with which it has become one of the world's main importers and exporters, and the vastness of the foreign currency reserves it has accrued, its current position is unique.

We have all struggled with ways in which we can capture the country's complexity. Some have called it the world's first rich poor nation. Aggregately, it is vastly wealthy. But per capita it is still around 100th on the global rankings. Others have called it a fragile superpower. There is no easy framework within which to fit it, and so, in some ways, we have to create from scratch some kind of model by which we can interpret and understand what it is better.

There are plenty of expressions of this contradictory nature of what China is from within the country. Tsinghua University international affairs expert Yan Xuetong talks in one recent book of a country which wishes to offer an alternative vision of modernity to the rest of the world - to operate, as it were, as a moral and cultural counterweight to the US and the group of allies clustered around it.

But there are plenty of other voices in China who beg to differ with this ambitious aim. For them, China wishes to be a model for no one except itself. It has plenty of internal issues to deal with, from energy efficiency to food security to social stability.

The expectations by the outside world toward China have probably never been greater nor more complicated. European leaders want China to become involved in saving the eurozone - and yet continue to have reservations about Chinese direct investment in certain sectors within the European region. The US says it wants China to be a stakeholder, equally involved in decisions on major international issues - and yet, on the Middle East, and in Latin America, or even in the Asian region, the US guards its interests closely.

We want, as outsiders, a more communicative China, one that is more networked into the global system. But does that mean that we are looking for a China that will become more like us? This is the suspicion among some communities within China. For them there is a fear that all along, the US and the EU and others embrace China but with a hope in their hearts that some day it will change not just in terms of its wealth, but also in terms of its model of governance, its politics.

Chinese leaders have a huge challenge to talk to this often contradictory world outside - one that probably does not know as much as it should about what is happening within the country and what makes the place tick. Their words are often misunderstood, manipulated, and sometimes misinterpreted. The problem is that we cannot expect a silent China - nor would such an outcome be good. But a China that is too straight with us would also be a problem - its words no doubt seen as assertive and domineering.

We have no choice though. It is clear that a historically significant trend is now happening - economic power is shifting to Asia, and much of it to China. This is happening far quicker than many ever expected.

For many Western constituencies, this is extremely disconcerting. Some hope that the old world of seemingly endless Western economic hegemony will come back. But it is clear that this is unlikely. An immense rebalancing has occurred, and the net result is a flatter global economy - one where developed and developing countries are growing closer.

The brute political outcome of this will be a world in which most Western economies, while being relatively prosperous, will experience a future that is not quite as good as the past. For the developing world, and particularly for China, the sources of growth are plentiful, and far into the future tomorrow will look better than today. It is a function of leadership that they have to communicate to people messages that reassure, that avoid conflict, and that aim for optimal outcomes. For Chinese leaders, therefore, their messaging to the world outside has to be that China is not some kind of combative enemy in all of this, but the partner in a process of rebalancing and inevitable change that will lead to a more just, more sustainable world.

The author is head of the Asia Programme at Chatham House, an independent policy institute based in London.

(China Daily 07/06/2012 page7)