China’s Mercantilism and New Global Economic Order

Modern communication technology has allowed China to achieve a centralized bureaucracy that has a smaller chance of becoming overextended and too top heavy. The danger, of parts of central government melting into regional structures with rebellious consequences, is diminishing every year. The risk is not totally gone however if rapid economic growth bumps into serious stagnation and even GDP reversal. As of today, China has the creaky uneven centralization of 18th century France and is gleefully engaged in large scale mercantilist practices.

Chinese society is not yet fully urbanized and consolidated. Beijing cannot yet engage in cutting edge mercantilist practices as done by Japan and Singapore. Chinese political center only recently overcame last remnants of feudalism, warlordism, and peripheral regional integration. Having dealt with that, China is pursuing the same economic path that allowed Kaiser’s Germany to rapidly grow by taking advantage of British post-mercantilist free trade period. It is very historically appropriate. There is no need for Beijing to emulate Spanish, British, or French mercantilist experiences.

For a nation of 5 year plans, it makes sense to try to skip developmental steps and leap from macroeconomics of Kaiser’s Germany to those of Japan. As of today, China has done rapid neomercantilist development by the book:

1) Government imposed positive trade balance through protectionism and currency control (yuan pegged to the dollar)

2) Self sufficiency in agriculture and manufacturing of basic to advanced goods

3) Acquisition of large amounts of money and gold (around a trillion dollars worth as of 2009). Controls to prevent wealth from flowing out of the country through protectionist restrictions on imports

4) Large scale mining and infrastructural projects to increase use of domestic resources and terrain. Hamilton and Quinsy Adams would be proud of what Beijing’s coastal elite have achieved in the last 20 years. China has also secured 60% of Africa’s resource exports and are structurally integrating Central Asia and Siberian Russia into their resource feeding network.

5) Keeping the overall population’s wages low to increase country’s overall manufacturing exports. That is easily accomplished by underdevelopment of Western provinces like Tibet. One child policy is more imposed on the wealthier Mandarin ruling coalition than the periphery ethnic groups. Uneven implementation of one child policy keeps periphery ethnic groups more fertile and poorer. Coastal urban ruling peoples spend more energies on advanced wealth generating employment rather than saving to augment multiple children.

6) Keeping of imports limited to natural resources and large scale buy outs of foreign expert talent in anything from engineering, electronics, economics, and hard sciences

Current opinion and international action has just been reactive so far. Westerners are mainly focused on China’s attempts to prevent rapid devaluing of the bought dollars (before all of them are eventually used on natural resources anyway) through creation of an international reserve currency . Some look on how the international recession, can be used by China, to move from less advanced manufacturing to price competing with Germans and Japanese when it comes to advanced electronics and electric cars. Chinese confidence in constructively criticizing the existing international economic system is often noted.

Very little attention has been paid to the implications of the world being pulled into a mercantilist arrangement. China is becoming more predictable and thus out-maneuverable. Originally, Britain became economically successful because it added free trade theory onto mercantilist practice earlier than Spain or France. It stayed one step ahead of the competition. However, the new economic hybrid has created oligarchal capitalist interests who then used liberal theory to reduce state’s involvement in the economy. Wealthy exporting interests (who controlled the house of commons and people’s opinion through printed media) used appeals to individual freedom to dismantle the mercantilist/free trade hybrid that made Britain powerful and wealthy to begin with. Britain coasted along but economically declined as hybrid societies were able to build up new waves of industrial assets through neomercantilist practices (Germany/ United States). As Britain declined in industrial might, it focused on its core strength of money management and that lead to the torch being passed down to Wall Street in the 20th century. The great competing banking hubs of Europe (Paris, Berlin, Moscow) were looted in the wars/revolutions. We now see what happens when banking and finance is the core strength and emphasis of the economy.

China is now in the process of moving to the final stage of manufacturing asset concentration through focus on development of advanced products like cars and computers. Rapid economic assimilation of Taiwan and Hong Kong will quickly aid in that process. Western investment in Taiwan created a base for high technology and competitive know how. Many Taiwanese oligarchs have already basically integrated their companies with mainland ones. Ideologically, Taiwan’s Kuomintang political center, can now smoothly cooperate with Chinese authorities. People forget how important socialism was in Chiang Kai Chek’s original nationalist ideology.

Very soon, China will begin manufacture of high technology goods to compete with Germany and Japan for markets in Russia, Europe, and North America (as well as lower end cheap electric cars sold to developing nations). They will be forced to utilize existing free trade international system (perhaps stabilized by IMF’s Special Drawing Rights currency basket) to push these products abroad.

How would Chinese like to see the world once their products flow onto middle class Western markets? They would like to see no protectionism from Europe, Russia, Japan, or North America. They would like to see rule of law and capitalist adherence from everybody in the world. They’d be fine with North America and Europe reduced to South American-esque resource providers and vacation destinations. We can see that if China takes on Japanese level importance in high technology exports, they’ll be able to then finally consolidate nationally and relax the amount of force needed to keep social stability.

In a few decades, the communist leadership in Beijing will then be able to claim that not only did they bring the nation out of poverty but they:

1) beat Westerners at their own game like Japan did (but without a period of war over resources)

2) created real feeling of nationalism, inter-ethnic peace, and modern nation state like Chiang Kai Chek wanted

3) avoided Soviet Union’s mistakes when undergoing Perestroika while properly utilizing communist fruits of mass literacy and emphasis on science/engineering

4) took the torch from United States as the Global role model when it comes to free trade, peaceful co-existence, lack of harmful interference in other societies’ business, isolationism, respect for borders of small states, and business cooperation

5) built more for the developing world than the financially oriented English speakers by swapping resources for real engineering construction projects

6) helped create a stabilizing one world currency for more even international development

Such claims will allow Communist party to win election after election for a number of decades even if they then allow political pluralism. Many Asian states continued to have one party rule for decades even after democratizing. Cultural collectivism and emphasis on agreement allows power elites to work smoothly together. Taking into account Britain’s experience, China can easily continue to pragmatically evolve, build a financial center through Hong Kong, bring new resources (such as Helium 3 from space exploration), and guide humanity by being its center of progress.

History has shown that leading global elites will not allow such unimpeded ascendancy. Cutting off resources and containment is too blatantly hostile. Japan and Imperial Germany have demonstrated that. Advanced hybrid of mercantilism and free trade (from a society strong enough economically and technologically) will be the only way to counterbalance Chinese ascendancy. Only European Union with English and Russian speaking allies has what it takes to effectively compete and prevent formation of a long term hegemon that is culturally and psychologically uncomfortable for Westerners.

Earlier in the article, it was mentioned how Chinese bureaucracy, has a small chance of being destabilized again. There is precedent for this happening at numerous times in China’s history with horrible civil wars and revolts from poorer less developed periphery. China’s gini index, that shows country’s income inequality between the rich and the poor, shows that China is even more economically unequal than United States. Today, Beijing’s authoritarian rule keeps the lid on trouble from elites from either the oligarch coastal factions, rural/regional factions, and urban West emulating liberals.

European Union’s job, to deal with the near future, involves:

1) Being proactive rather than reactive to Chinese, American, or Russian moves

2) Acquiring valuable allies to augment influence. That means working first with Russia to kick American/British influence out of central Europe and then with England to push American influence out of NATO. NATO can then be ended and America approached as an equal power to work with.

3) Being pragmatic and not looking at human rights when acquiring resources from other nations. Europe still has time to lock onto substantial amounts of resource exports from the third world, especially Africa. It can join Russia in developing the Arctic energy reserves and help Russia outbid Chinese resource extraction/exploration companies in Central Asia.

4) Consolidate EU structures, such as the European Parliament, so more coherent action can be undertaken with more popular trans European legitimacy.

5) Use advanced collective protectionist methods to keep an edge in high technology products to stay a step ahead of China. Contribute even more constructively to global currency formation through IMF where Westerners still dominate.

6) Work with United States and England to manage the geopolitical, social, and economic decline of United States peacefully and productively. Invite young American professionals to European Union to displace social pressures from relying on less assimilative Muslim immigrants. Become the stable adult co-equal mediator between Russia and United States so the two former superpowers can productively contribute and provide nuclear protection. Open borders to young educated Westerners from around the world to counterbalance aging of Europe.

7) Develop strong ties to regional powers like Japan and India to counterbalance Chinese cultural influence. To do that, rapidly expand economic cooperation with them in the sphere of building climate change infrastructure, energy, military, and space

8) Comprehensively educate the public on climate change and loss of technological edge to China in non-confrontational terms. Take the lead in recognizing petty-infighting (like Poland’s mistrust of Russian cooperation in Europe) and offer tangible economic/developmental incentives to major actors to overcome them.

Brussels has enough time to still effectively consolidate before China does. It will require the same long term vision, developmental eye, and good historical sense as the one possessed by their Chinese politburo counterparts. Europe is more economically egalitarian than China. It has more power elites and cutting edge professionals. It must find a way to be protected by Russo-American nuclear umbrella (without being controlled by them) so not too much money is spent on integrated European defense. Together, Western peoples of the world got close to a billion people and have as much of a shot as Chinese (less than half the Chinese speak the ruling dialect of Mandarin). Western civilization has the qualitative expertise to provide solid competition that will benefit all of humanity.

Will China Displace the US As the Worlds Economic and Political Superpower

Over the past 15 years I have had the privilege of travelling to China on a regular basis and have witnessed the fantastic economic miracle that has seen the transformation of China into a modern economy.

Cities such as Shanghai and Beijing have been literally transformed in less than a generation into gleaming cities that inspire awe in those that have seen this transformation. In almost all areas of the economy China has transformed itself into an industrial powerhouse and for all intensive purposes has caught up with the west in many critical areas.

In contrast to this continued and seemingly unending economic miracle the last decade has seen the United States first battered by September 11th then a series of costly wars. On the domestic economic front a series of unending economic problems.

A decade ago the bursting of the first internet stock bubble gave us a first taste of things to come. The last near global meltdown brought about by the US housing bubble and leading to the worst recession since the great depression has shaken confidence and led to considerable speculation as to the structural decline of the US.

As this article is going to press it is august 2011 and the latest US crisis the artificial and political crisis brought about by the debate about the government debt ceiling has heightened the sense of malaise and the feeling that America is now becoming more dysfunctional both politically and economically. While a political deal has been struck there is a growing sense that things cannot continue and will likely get worse before they get better.

There is no drought that the United States is facing some troubling problems with respect to the economy. In both the short term and the long term America has many challenges that it will have to face. So far it must be said that it is not doing a particularly good job of facing these challenges and the politics of the US currently does not inspire any degree of confidence.

With respect to China similarly there have been many years of uninterrupted growth and truly outstanding successes. In this article I neither wish to dwell on the success of China nor the problems facing the United states.

If we look at the world there are of course many factors that must be considered when analysing whether the US will continue in its privileged position as both the global superpower and preeminent economy.

If we analyse the world and the strength of all countries both economically, politically and militarily there are many factors to consider.

First geographically and demographically the United states cannot be displaced from the preeminent position on the American continents. With a population of over 300 million and its large diverse economy no country in either north America, south America or central America will ever be in a position to challenge the US. Most are too small and only perhaps Brazil with roughly half the size population of the US can over the long term perhaps get close to its size economically.

So if America can never be challenged in its own backyard how about the rest of the world. Well Africa is a non issue. there is no indication that in the middle east whose countries outside of oil markets will ever challenge the US as a preeminent power in the world.Yes middle east countries can cause problems for the US however none will ever occupy superpower status and most have much smaller population bases.those with richer economies are largely based on a single commodity Oil.

With respect to Europe, almost all problems that America faces the Europeans have.Most European countries are also aging rapidly and likely to be in worse shape than the US with respect to entitlement programs. There is no reason to believe that either Britain, France or Germany the largest economies could ever challenge the US for economic or military preeminence.

Russia and the former Soviet republics are also not a challenge to the United States.Russia has based its economy largely on energy. Russia is forecast to shrink by almost a third in population over the next generation. It is highly unlikely to ever challenge the US again as a preeminent economic or military superpower.

The Japanese also are highly unlikely to ever challenge the Us again for economic preeminence considering their rapidly aging population and the host of other problems that they are currently facing.

And here there is an important lesson. In my lifetime 30 years ago the future was supposed to belong to Japan. the Us was written off as a second rate power in decline. That was just before the Japanese stock market imploded and the property market crashed. Their economy has never recovered.

Which essentially leaves China and India. both with populations of over a billion people and both growing.

India however has a long road to go before it could ever hope to catch up to the US. India is also highly diverse with hundreds of different ethnic groups. it is very unlikely that in the next century it would challenge the US as a superpower economically or militarily.

So really the future will continue to hold the US as one of the most important nations globally. Whatever short term problems the US faces it will be one of the 2 most important countries on earth.

The question will only be whether it will remain the most important country or whether it will lose that position to China.

Here again let us put this in perspective. Yes China is growing rapidly and yes it will surpass the Us in total economic output shortly. this does not mean it will become a country that is more important to the World than the United States.

The following are some advantages that the US has that China does not.

The use of english around the world as the dominant language of business and because of history will realistically never be displaced by Chinese. And make no mistake this is a very critical advantage. The cultural and historic ties that the US has with Europe means that it is unlikely to be surpassed by China in its influence in this area.

The United States has also demonstrated a large advantage in having societies around the world adopt its culture and some aspect of its values, including paradoxically in China. The same cannot be said for the Chinese.

American brands are still global and dominant in many areas. How many Chinese brands can you name… American multinational companies still dominate globally. How many global Chinese companies can you name…

At this point it is also important to ask a very fundamental question. What actual structural advantage do the Chinese have..

They are not rich in resources. So the Chinese must scramble to try to go into areas that have proven very difficult in the past. Areas like Africa… Many areas in which they are trying to establish themselves have proven very volatile in the past.

While arguably the American political system has problems the Us has been fundamentally stable for well over 100 years. It is not at all clear that China will continue to enjoy a stable political climate in the coming generations.

Here again i am not going to enter a debate on the Chinese political system or structure.I will only say that it will only likely to face challenges when domestic growth slows or for that matter ends..

One of the main undisputed advantages that China has enjoyed has been a cheap labour force that is highly disciplined and hard working. The costs of labour in China however have risen and will continue to rise. Just as japan lost this advantage so will China. at that time it will have to rely on innovation to fuel economic growth.

Certainly as long as China is playing catchup in areas like construction and infrastructure there is room for more domestic growth. there are clear indications however of a developing bubble in housing in China as well as a dramatic decrease in the effective return on capital.

None of this takes away from the tremendous accomplishments of the Chinese or the fact that in my opinion China will continue to become a more and more important player on the world stage. I also wish the Chinese well in terms of navigating the road ahead.

The truth through is that America whatever its current problems will continue to play a crucial role in the world economy and on the world stage for the balance of the 21st century.

China plus ASEAN plus FTA equals East Asian Unification? Not Quite Part II

As discussed in Part I of this series, the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) will be a win-win for the signatories. The agreement will produce greater economies of scales, as it expands trade between members, which will result in an aggregate increase in competitive export products from China and ASEAN. However, it will not foreshadow European-style regional integration, at least not in the near future. The centrifugal force generated by the agreement will not only draw ASEAN closer to China, the regions manufacturing hub, but it will push those states outside the bloc to liberalize their own trade in order to stay competitive. While the United States is generally supportive of ASEAN, it is not in the strategic interest of the U.S. for it to be outside of an Asian economic bloc, especially one that will aid in cementing a strong Chinese leadership position in Southeast Asia. Implementation of this agreement has increased concerns among some analysts that the economic and perhaps, the political center of gravity of the region are shifting away from the United States and toward China.

Over the last 10 years, Southeast Asia has received approximately US$90 billion in U.S. foreign direct investment (FDI); it is the third largest market for U.S. exports; and U.S.-ASEAN trade is over US$140 billion (Pitsuwan 2008). Southeast Asia is flush with agricultural and natural resources, and is home to more than half of the world’s annual merchant shipping traffic. Intraregional trade between ASEAN nations still hovers at 25% and in East Asia, it now verges on 55% (Pitsuwan 2008). Over 80% of Japanese and Chinese oil imports travel through these sea-lanes. The geopolitical reality is that due to proximity and economic clout, China’s access to this region will increase. This could not only be detrimental to America’s economic interests, but also represent a strategic threat.

It is in America and ASEANs best interest for the U.S. to not only promote further ASEAN integration, but also establish stronger ties with the region. This will enable ASEAN to serve as a fulcrum between China (and India). America must also realize that China’s increasing penetration into Southeast Asia is not a zero-sum game; the U.S. must be prepared to have a constructive working relationship with China in the region. If the America hopes to balance China’s growing influence it will need a rapprochement with ASEAN that displays a cohesive policy for the organization, but at the same time exploit the diversity of opinion within ASEAN. This will allow the U.S. to advance its policy goals in the region.

China

Over the last decade, China’s resurgent role in Southeast Asia has moved from a situation that generated fear in the region, to one where China is seen as a benign regional leader that plays a constructive role in creating opportunity. China has worked hard to market this image while participating in regional institutions. Its long-term goals are to create greater interdependencies between itself and Southeast Asia through economic incentives, which will give ASEAN a strong stake in China’s success. In this way, ASEAN can serve as insurance against possible U.S., Japanese, Indian containment in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. At the same time, Beijing hopes it can simultaneously reduce the influence of the United States in the South China Sea.

China is increasing its political reach in the region through a series of strong bilateral ties with ASEAN member-states. These links include increased cooperation in regional security (including providing military training), scholarships, and helping to facilitate conflict resolution in the region. China has also promised over US$10 billion in infrastructure, energy, and cultural programs between the countries. China has especially provided special assistance to the lesser developed states of Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar.

During the 1997 Asian financial Crisis, America did not provide significant leadership, which left room for China advance itself as a regional leader, often at the expense of Japan. China promised not to devalue its currency, the Renminbi, which helped return stability to the markets, a move much praised in the region. Tokyo worked to provide a competitive framework for an Asian Monetary fund, in an effort to engender long-term stability. Washington repeatedly blocked this endeavor, out of fear it would be froze-out by a potential Asian bloc. Japan and China are still pushing their competing ideas of a greater-East Asia economic sphere, but the main difference between the two nations is that Japan wishes to include Australia, New Zealand, and India in an attempt to minimize the influence of China. Obviously, China is not interested in having none ASEAN and East Asian nations involved.

The idea for an Asian Monetary Fund did not die. In February 2008, the ASEAN+3 forum in Thailand agreed to expand bilateral currency swaps and also enlarge the Chiang Mai Initiative reserve fund in order to enhance regional economic stability in the wake of the current global financial crisis. This goal has prompted ASEAN+3, in coordination with the Asian Development Bank (ADB), to develop an Asian Currency Unit (ACU) as part of a comprehensive Asian Monetary Fund. China has promoted the idea, which has gained wide regional support. China championing this effort appears surprising considering past objections; however, Beijing is supportive of the ACU because it is now able to take a greater leadership role in its management than Japan, whereas it was not in a position to do so 10 years earlier. Although meant to be non-tradable, the ACU would be an indicator of the stability of participating currencies in the region, an Asian version of the European Currency Unit, which was the precursor to the Euro. Due to the wide variance in levels of economic development, the sophistication of financial transfer systems, and the levels of nationalism in the Pacific Rim, a single currency for the region is still unlikely.

What ASEAN Needs

Western analyst had long criticized and even dismissed ASEAN; the common narrative characterized the organization as soft on human rights and democracy, and therefore incapable of taking decisive and constructive action concerning regional issues that were important to the West. Some pasts areas of conflict involved human rights in Myanmar and East Timor, as well as issues of democracy in key members states like Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Part of the problem is that Western observers have not tended to judge ASEAN on its own merit, but instead, based on how it compares to the contemporary European Union (EU). As a result, ASEAN has never been fully respected by the United States.

For their part, not all ASEAN members have been eager to see a stronger American presence in the region. In the 1990’s, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called for a greater East Asian forum, which would exclude the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. Many in the region termed this the “caucus without Caucasians”, something Washington successfully nixed, but to only see it rebooted a decade later as ASEAN+3.

At the time, the exclusion of Western nations reflected the regional vogue of “Asian Values”, an ideology trumpeted by Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, along with some political thinkers in Japan. Those who adhered to this ideology espoused that all Asians share distinctive cultural traits that make them fundamentally different from Westerners; therefore, Western political and social norms were not entirely appropriate for Asian societies. Some of these shared Asian values are a preference for social harmony, government paternalism, collectivism over the rights of individuals, respect toward authority, and a greater concern for socio-economic stability over human rights.

By the turn of the century, deeply pragmatic ASEAN states came to the realization that it was impossible to push Western powers out of the region, so it began what was termed, “constructive engagement” with all of them. Under this policy, ASEAN intends to hedge its relationship with the larger powers (China, India, America, and Australia) as an intermediary, reaping the benefits for its member states. Singapore Minister of Foreign Affairs George Yeo, speaking for ASEAN to the press in November 2007, described the importance of America to Southeast Asia: “In short, no major strategic issue in Asia can be resolved without the active participation of the U.S” (Marciel 2008).

America’s Next Move

In the aftermath of 9-11, the bulk of Washington’s foreign policy capacity was consumed by wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. Major initiatives in Southeast Asia fell by the wayside as the primary focus moved to counterterrorism and other security concerns. Even when America’s focus broadened beyond the “War on Terror” into issues of trade, its approach was often ineffectual. The U.S. cannot afford to squander another decade in the region teetering between security issues and weak trade.

The 2005, Joint Vision Statement on the ASEAN-U.S. Enhanced Partnership was not enough to secure America’s future in Southeast Asia; Washington needs to define, create, and utilize more avenues of regular dialogue between itself and ASEAN. Although the U.S. and ASEAN have enjoyed relations for 30 years, no regular annual summits have ever been established. Shoring up the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) is a good place to begin, but it should only be a pass-through for more specialized U.S.-ASEAN talks. The current lack of contact hurts America’s ability to focus its attention on ASEAN states. The U.S. should encourage East/Southeast Asian integration, because it will help to socialize and constrain provocative movements by China. It may also encourage American investors to do greater business in the region, as the various types of independent national laws and regulations are streamlined. Nevertheless, America should also exploit areas of friction between ASEAN and China, as well as the lack of cohesion within ASEAN.

Although China has achieved strong ties with certain members of ASEAN, many nations in the region, such as Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam still maintain a healthy fear of Chinese hegemony and anti-Chinese sentiment in their populations has not yet abated. There have been complaints, by some ASEAN members, that China pushed bilateral FTA negotiations to isolate nations that were not very pro-China, such as Malaysia and Vietnam. Southeast Asian diplomats have also grumbled that China’s influence has hindered consensus building within ASEAN as member nations try to gage Beijing’s potential reaction.

The U.S. has also not closely engaged China-friendly states, such as Myanmar and Cambodia. This is especially true in the case of Myanmar due to human rights concerns, which have resulted in embargoes that have resulted in little political change. The U.S. needs a more pragmatic approach. These nations would be very receptive to American competition for their attention.

The United States and Japan remain the largest investors in the region and the largest ASEAN export receivers. China is not close to eclipsing the U.S. in hard power projection and America is still the largest source of popular culture. With respect to trade, some ASEAN members are not pleased that Early Harvest has allowed China to compete in raw materials, agricultural products, and minerals it did not produce, whereas China will eventually have lower tariff free access to manufacturing markets that ASEAN and Chinese firms were already competing in.

The U.S. has much more work to do on the free trade front. Thus far, America has only one FTA completed agreements, in the nearly 15 years since the U.S. initiated its first Asia-Pacific TIFA, with Singapore in 1991. There are stalled negotiations for FTAs with Thailand and Malaysia, and the Philippines and Indonesia have expressed interest in FTAs. Besides FTAs, policymakers have other eco­nomically significant agreements available, including the expansion of trade and investment framework agree­ments (TIFA) and open skies agreements (OSA). A TIFA is a consultative mechanism for the United States to discuss trade issues, and an OSA creates free markets for aviation services. America has TIFAs with ASEAN, but TIFAs and OSAs have been severely underutilized. Unlike China, the U.S. should work as multilateral as possible with ASEAN to avoid the negative effects of export diversion and encourage ASEAN unity.

Long term, the U.S. could do more in advancing the scope of FTAs and OSAs in Asia. A region-wide agreement would better reduce regional trade barriers, increase U.S.-ASEAN trade, and advance American security interests. The U.S. must stop blocking Japan’s attempts to project a competing vision of Asian unity, because it has not worked. The only result is Japan losing influence to China, which is not in Japan or America’s national interests. Instead, Washington can work with Japan to promote shared interests inside the ASEAN+3 framework, where Japan can serve as a U.S. proxy on specific issues critical to both nations. This would be a similar relationship to what the U.S. enjoys with Britain with respect to the European Union. Currently, Northeast Asia’s economic heavyweights are the world’s last remaining region that lacks an inter-governmental trade bloc, such as ASEAN. The U.S. does not want to find itself outside such a teaming, so it should be working with Japan to create one that is more inclusive. Even if FTAs are not politically feasible, the US should focus on TIFAs for high priority areas of interest.

Lastly, the U.S. should do what it must to gain Japan’s assistance in fighting any attempts for an tradable ACU, because that could limit U.S. government’s ability to finance its larger budget deficits at relatively low interest.

Notes:

As discussed in Part I of this series, the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) will be a win-win for the signatories. The agreement will produce greater economies of scales, as it expands trade between members, which will result in an aggregate increase in competitive export products from China and ASEAN. However, it will not foreshadow European-style regional integration, at least not in the near future. The centrifugal force generated by the agreement will not only draw ASEAN closer to China, the regions manufacturing hub, but it will push those states outside the bloc to liberalize their own trade in order to stay competitive. While the United States is generally supportive of ASEAN, it is not in the strategic interest of the U.S. for it to be outside of an Asian economic bloc, especially one that will aid in cementing a strong Chinese leadership position in Southeast Asia. Implementation of this agreement has increased concerns among some analysts that the economic and perhaps, the political center of gravity of the region are shifting away from the United States and toward China.

Over the last 10 years, Southeast Asia has received approximately US$90 billion in U.S. foreign direct investment (FDI); it is the third largest market for U.S. exports; and U.S.-ASEAN trade is over US$140 billion (Pitsuwan 2008). Southeast Asia is flush with agricultural and natural resources, and is home to more than half of the world’s annual merchant shipping traffic. Intraregional trade between ASEAN nations still hovers at 25% and in East Asia, it now verges on 55% (Pitsuwan 2008). Over 80% of Japanese and Chinese oil imports travel through these sea-lanes. The geopolitical reality is that due to proximity and economic clout, China’s access to this region will increase. This could not only be detrimental to America’s economic interests, but also represent a strategic threat.

It is in America and ASEANs best interest for the U.S. to not only promote further ASEAN integration, but also establish stronger ties with the region. This will enable ASEAN to serve as a fulcrum between China (and India). America must also realize that China’s increasing penetration into Southeast Asia is not a zero-sum game; the U.S. must be prepared to have a constructive working relationship with China in the region. If the America hopes to balance China’s growing influence it will need a rapprochement with ASEAN that displays a cohesive policy for the organization, but at the same time exploit the diversity of opinion within ASEAN. This will allow the U.S. to advance its policy goals in the region.

China

Over the last decade, China’s resurgent role in Southeast Asia has moved from a situation that generated fear in the region, to one where China is seen as a benign regional leader that plays a constructive role in creating opportunity. China has worked hard to market this image while participating in regional institutions. Its long-term goals are to create greater interdependencies between itself and Southeast Asia through economic incentives, which will give ASEAN a strong stake in China’s success. In this way, ASEAN can serve as insurance against possible U.S., Japanese, Indian containment in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. At the same time, Beijing hopes it can simultaneously reduce the influence of the United States in the South China Sea.

China is increasing its political reach in the region through a series of strong bilateral ties with ASEAN member-states. These links include increased cooperation in regional security (including providing military training), scholarships, and helping to facilitate conflict resolution in the region. China has also promised over US$10 billion in infrastructure, energy, and cultural programs between the countries. China has especially provided special assistance to the lesser developed states of Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar.

During the 1997 Asian financial Crisis, America did not provide significant leadership, which left room for China advance itself as a regional leader, often at the expense of Japan. China promised not to devalue its currency, the Renminbi, which helped return stability to the markets, a move much praised in the region. Tokyo worked to provide a competitive framework for an Asian Monetary fund, in an effort to engender long-term stability. Washington repeatedly blocked this endeavor, out of fear it would be froze-out by a potential Asian bloc. Japan and China are still pushing their competing ideas of a greater-East Asia economic sphere, but the main difference between the two nations is that Japan wishes to include Australia, New Zealand, and India in an attempt to minimize the influence of China. Obviously, China is not interested in having none ASEAN and East Asian nations involved.

The idea for an Asian Monetary Fund did not die. In February 2008, the ASEAN+3 forum in Thailand agreed to expand bilateral currency swaps and also enlarge the Chiang Mai Initiative reserve fund in order to enhance regional economic stability in the wake of the current global financial crisis. This goal has prompted ASEAN+3, in coordination with the Asian Development Bank (ADB), to develop an Asian Currency Unit (ACU) as part of a comprehensive Asian Monetary Fund. China has promoted the idea, which has gained wide regional support. China championing this effort appears surprising considering past objections; however, Beijing is supportive of the ACU because it is now able to take a greater leadership role in its management than Japan, whereas it was not in a position to do so 10 years earlier. Although meant to be non-tradable, the ACU would be an indicator of the stability of participating currencies in the region, an Asian version of the European Currency Unit, which was the precursor to the Euro. Due to the wide variance in levels of economic development, the sophistication of financial transfer systems, and the levels of nationalism in the Pacific Rim, a single currency for the region is still unlikely.

What ASEAN Needs

Western analyst had long criticized and even dismissed ASEAN; the common narrative characterized the organization as soft on human rights and democracy, and therefore incapable of taking decisive and constructive action concerning regional issues that were important to the West. Some pasts areas of conflict involved human rights in Myanmar and East Timor, as well as issues of democracy in key members states like Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Part of the problem is that Western observers have not tended to judge ASEAN on its own merit, but instead, based on how it compares to the contemporary European Union (EU). As a result, ASEAN has never been fully respected by the United States.

For their part, not all ASEAN members have been eager to see a stronger American presence in the region. In the 1990’s, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called for a greater East Asian forum, which would exclude the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. Many in the region termed this the “caucus without Caucasians”, something Washington successfully nixed, but to only see it rebooted a decade later as ASEAN+3.

At the time, the exclusion of Western nations reflected the regional vogue of “Asian Values”, an ideology trumpeted by Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, along with some political thinkers in Japan. Those who adhered to this ideology espoused that all Asians share distinctive cultural traits that make them fundamentally different from Westerners; therefore, Western political and social norms were not entirely appropriate for Asian societies. Some of these shared Asian values are a preference for social harmony, government paternalism, collectivism over the rights of individuals, respect toward authority, and a greater concern for socio-economic stability over human rights.

By the turn of the century, deeply pragmatic ASEAN states came to the realization that it was impossible to push Western powers out of the region, so it began what was termed, “constructive engagement” with all of them. Under this policy, ASEAN intends to hedge its relationship with the larger powers (China, India, America, and Australia) as an intermediary, reaping the benefits for its member states. Singapore Minister of Foreign Affairs George Yeo, speaking for ASEAN to the press in November 2007, described the importance of America to Southeast Asia: “In short, no major strategic issue in Asia can be resolved without the active participation of the U.S” (Marciel 2008).

America’s Next Move

In the aftermath of 9-11, the bulk of Washington’s foreign policy capacity was consumed by wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. Major initiatives in Southeast Asia fell by the wayside as the primary focus moved to counterterrorism and other security concerns. Even when America’s focus broadened beyond the “War on Terror” into issues of trade, its approach was often ineffectual. The U.S. cannot afford to squander another decade in the region teetering between security issues and weak trade.

The 2005, Joint Vision Statement on the ASEAN-U.S. Enhanced Partnership was not enough to secure America’s future in Southeast Asia; Washington needs to define, create, and utilize more avenues of regular dialogue between itself and ASEAN. Although the U.S. and ASEAN have enjoyed relations for 30 years, no regular annual summits have ever been established. Shoring up the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) is a good place to begin, but it should only be a pass-through for more specialized U.S.-ASEAN talks. The current lack of contact hurts America’s ability to focus its attention on ASEAN states. The U.S. should encourage East/Southeast Asian integration, because it will help to socialize and constrain provocative movements by China. It may also encourage American investors to do greater business in the region, as the various types of independent national laws and regulations are streamlined. Nevertheless, America should also exploit areas of friction between ASEAN and China, as well as the lack of cohesion within ASEAN.

Although China has achieved strong ties with certain members of ASEAN, many nations in the region, such as Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam still maintain a healthy fear of Chinese hegemony and anti-Chinese sentiment in their populations has not yet abated. There have been complaints, by some ASEAN members, that China pushed bilateral FTA negotiations to isolate nations that were not very pro-China, such as Malaysia and Vietnam. Southeast Asian diplomats have also grumbled that China’s influence has hindered consensus building within ASEAN as member nations try to gage Beijing’s potential reaction.

The U.S. has also not closely engaged China-friendly states, such as Myanmar and Cambodia. This is especially true in the case of Myanmar due to human rights concerns, which have resulted in embargoes that have resulted in little political change. The U.S. needs a more pragmatic approach. These nations would be very receptive to American competition for their attention.

The United States and Japan remain the largest investors in the region and the largest ASEAN export receivers. China is not close to eclipsing the U.S. in hard power projection and America is still the largest source of popular culture. With respect to trade, some ASEAN members are not pleased that Early Harvest has allowed China to compete in raw materials, agricultural products, and minerals it did not produce, whereas China will eventually have lower tariff free access to manufacturing markets that ASEAN and Chinese firms were already competing in.

The U.S. has much more work to do on the free trade front. Thus far, America has only one FTA completed agreements, in the nearly 15 years since the U.S. initiated its first Asia-Pacific TIFA, with Singapore in 1991. There are stalled negotiations for FTAs with Thailand and Malaysia, and the Philippines and Indonesia have expressed interest in FTAs. Besides FTAs, policymakers have other eco­nomically significant agreements available, including the expansion of trade and investment framework agree­ments (TIFA) and open skies agreements (OSA). A TIFA is a consultative mechanism for the United States to discuss trade issues, and an OSA creates free markets for aviation services. America has TIFAs with ASEAN, but TIFAs and OSAs have been severely underutilized. Unlike China, the U.S. should work as multilateral as possible with ASEAN to avoid the negative effects of export diversion and encourage ASEAN unity.

Long term, the U.S. could do more in advancing the scope of FTAs and OSAs in Asia. A region-wide agreement would better reduce regional trade barriers, increase U.S.-ASEAN trade, and advance American security interests. The U.S. must stop blocking Japan’s attempts to project a competing vision of Asian unity, because it has not worked. The only result is Japan losing influence to China, which is not in Japan or America’s national interests. Instead, Washington can work with Japan to promote shared interests inside the ASEAN+3 framework, where Japan can serve as a U.S. proxy on specific issues critical to both nations. This would be a similar relationship to what the U.S. enjoys with Britain with respect to the European Union. Currently, Northeast Asia’s economic heavyweights are the world’s last remaining region that lacks an inter-governmental trade bloc, such as ASEAN. The U.S. does not want to find itself outside such a teaming, so it should be working with Japan to create one that is more inclusive. Even if FTAs are not politically feasible, the US should focus on TIFAs for high priority areas of interest.

Lastly, the U.S. should do what it must to gain Japan’s assistance in fighting any attempts for an tradable ACU, because that could limit U.S. government’s ability to finance its larger budget deficits at relatively low interest.

Notes:

Pitsuwan, Surin. 2008. “Bolstering U.S.-ASEAN Cooperation”

Japan Times Online.

Marciel, Scot A. 2008. “Remarks to Center o Strategic International Studies Meeting

‘U.S. and Southeast Asia: Toward a Strategy for Enhanced Engagement'”

U.S. State Department.