Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Can China Lead?

The National Interest has just published a piece Joshua Kulantzick and I wrote based on our research trip over the summer to six Asian nations. Our main question was: What is the impact of China's emergence on Asian regionalism? We interviewed more than 50 senior sources.

Our findings were surprising as they seemed to verify my hunch that Southeast Asian policymakers would be forced to be more honest, and less cyncial, about their interests in the face of dramatic political change in Asia. Here is an excerpt for our article titled "Hu's on First?":

In nations like Vietnam, political elites have even begun to analyze the “China model” of development, assessing whether China’s combination of moderate economic liberalization and no concurrent political reform could be duplicated in Hanoi.

But Beijing’s charm may be reaching its limits.

While China has pursued more sophisticated diplomacy in the region, its own political system has hardly become more transparent. Just the opposite: Though many foreign governments hoped for substantial political reform when Hu Jintao came to power, studies by groups like Human Rights Watch actually show Beijing has backslid on political and social freedoms under Hu, with crackdowns on local media and civil-society organizations like China Development Brief (CDB), a prominent Beijing- based website that monitored Chinese non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

This summer, with little warning, the Chinese government shut down CDB. At the same time, China clearly has been upgrading its military, boosting defense spending by some 20 percent last year alone and beginning to develop a blue-water navy, but failing to coherently explain to its neighbors the rationale behind its build-up.

Worse, even as wealthier Asian nations are beginning to embrace environmental stewardship, better labor rights and corporate social responsibility, China’s companies, now beginning to invest abroad, remain plagued by low environmental standards, poor governance and little accountability.

As Xiaobo Lu, a Columbia University professor, says, China needs institutions to establish the ethical “rules of the game.” “Right now, it is everything goes—precisely because, yes, everything goes—no good credit checking system, no well-placed fear of violating good norms, one can get away with cheating, et cetera”, Lu told The Wall Street Journal.

Indeed, to many Southeast Asian nations, there seems no way to hold Chinese firms accountable for disasters ranging from clear-cutting in northern Myanmar to exports of tainted products to significant problems with Chinese joint venture partners.

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