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China and the US in Asia: Four Scenarios for the Future

Dr. Andrey KORTUNOV

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A few months ago, the author wrote an article for the RIAC website on possible variants of the new international architecture on the European continent that might take shape over the next few years. Arguing that European politics will turn towards Moscow–Brussels relations, the article attempted to construct several scenarios for Europe’s future depending on the possible development trajectories of Russia and the EU through 2024. The scenario matrix for Greater Europe was built along two axes: a weak (fragmented) EU versus a strong (coherent) EU and Russia without reforms (running by inertia) versus Russia with reforms. The outcome was four generalized scenarios (“Eurasian Melting Pot,” “Two-Fold Greater Europe,” “No Man’s Land,” and “New Cold War”).

The article was viewed many times and prompted multiple comments, including questions as to whether the proposed scenario scheme was applicable to other regions, particularly Asia. The text below is a brief sketch of a scenario matrix for Asia, or rather for its greater part. West Asia – from Iran to the Eastern Mediterranean – appears to be an independent sub-system of international relations developing according to its own laws and requires a separate matrix.

Choosing independent variables

Even if we exclude the Middle East, which is hugely important for the region, Asia remains a far greater, far more complex, and far more fragmented continent than Europe. There are no thousands of years of common history, no clearly dominant religion, no apparent analogue to “European values.” Multilateral institutions in Asia are not as well-developed as in Europe and security problems – from nuclear proliferation to border conflicts – are more numerous. Economic paradigms and political regimes in Asia are less homogeneous than in Europe; any choice will be subjective and overlook important bifurcation points in the development of Asian order/chaos.

Nonetheless, we might suppose that development of international relations in Asia in the coming years will be largely determined by two basic factors. First, the dynamic of correlation between the economic, academic, technological, military, strategic, and political potentials of China and the US. The general tendency here is obvious: over at least the last three decades, the balance of power has been steadily shifting toward China. There is no reason to believe that this tendency will change in the near future. Of course, the process is not linear: accelerations, decelerations, halts and even backward movements are possible, This is especially true of the military, strategic, and political components of a national power, as they are less prone to inertia and are more flexible than the economic, academic, and technological components.

Second, Asia’s future largely depends on the correlation between elements of collaboration and conflict, stability and instability, inter-dependence and protectionism, universalism and particularism, moderation and extremism, etc., in the continent’s development. Traditionally, most Asian countries have succeeded in finding an acceptable balance between the imperatives of the region’s economic development and those of the domestic political agenda. However, maintaining this balance in the near future is far from guaranteed. The general growth of nationalism, rise of religious fundamentalism in Asia, increasing military spending, resurrection of old hostile historic narratives, risks of WMD proliferation, and rise of international terrorism suggest considering a “confrontational” scenario for the international system’s evolution as at least possible, if not the most probable scenario.

Combining the horizontal axis (which records the changing balance of power between China and the US) with the vertical one (which measures the correlation between elements of collaboration and conflict in international relations in Asia), we get a matrix of four development scenarios for China-US relations and for the international system on the Asian continent as a whole. Naturally, this matrix is highly schematic and in no way exhausts all the development possibilities of international relations in Asia. Nonetheless, it can serve as a starting point for more comprehensive and more complete scenario forecasts concerning the future of the Asian continent.

Washington consensus 2.0

This scenario is based on the Trump Administration’s success in preserving – at least temporarily – the geopolitical status quo in Asia. In this scenario, the US is able to slow down or suspend entirely those changes to the balance of power between China and the US that are negative for the US. Economic development of the US accelerates while China’s economy decelerates significantly, accumulating fundamental structural problems. The economic pressure Washington consistently puts on Beijing bears fruit. The deficit in US-China trade decreases significantly. Trump succeeds in wringing concessions out of China on other fronts as well (currency exchange rates, non-tariff restrictions, intellectual property, etc.). There are no dramatic shifts in China’s favor in the military strategic balance between the two countries either: the consistent increase of China’s military spending is parried by large-scale efforts to modernize the US military, including its Navy.

At the same time, military political tensions on the Asian continent generally deescalate. Pyongyang freezes its nuclear and ballistic programs and the North Korean conflict gradually becomes less critical. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea remain unresolved, but they do not provoke bitter political crises in Southeast Asia. Economic interdependence between Asian states deepens and the expanding middle class in most Asian countries becomes the foundation of Asia’s political stability. The US returns to the idea of joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, taking into account new bilateral economic and trade agreements already signed with partners in the Asia Pacific. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership promoted by China is stalled by numerous multilateral and bilateral disputes on specific issues. Political extremism and international terrorism in Asia are on a downward trend. The arms race between Asia’s leading countries slows down, and in its place is competition in the economy and competition between social development models.

This scenario means preserving and, in some areas, bolstering American influence in Asia. The Pacific and Indian Oceans remain free for navigation, including navigation by the US and its allies’ Navies and Air Forces. Traditional American allies remain loyal to Washington even though they actively develop economic collaboration with China. US–China cooperation continues and expands in the G1.5 format rather than the G2, with the US the senior partner setting the rules of the game. It is even possible that the US and China will reach some agreements on nuclear arms control, although the US has a decisive nuclear advantage (particularly in sea- and air-based nuclear strategic forces).

On the other hand, the US continues to put pressure on China on such issues as human rights, civil society development, and Internet freedom. This pressure resonates with certain groups within China, particularly among educated urban youth and the growing Chinese middle class. Preservation and bolstering of America’s positions in the Pacific and Indian Oceans compel Beijing to pay greater attention to resource and transit options afforded by continental Eurasia, thereby increasing the significance of Russia and Central Asia for China’s strategy.

China–India Axis

In this scenario, the US does not succeed in slowing down further growth of China’s power in any of its manifestations: economic, research, technological, military, strategic, and political. Moreover, a new cyclical crisis in the American economy (2019–2020) speeds up the shift in the balance of power between the US and China in the latter’s favor. Washington’s positions in Asia are also undermined by the profound and ongoing domestic political crisis in the US that prevents Washington from conducting a consistent foreign policy. The US political establishment remains deeply split on the country’s optimal strategy regarding China: proponents of consistent “containment” of Beijing are opposed by adherents of “engagement.” At the same time, the US’s harsh unilateral policies toward their partners and allies in Asia accelerate the relative decline in American presence in Asia. Washington’s rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership has long-term negative consequences due to the US’s inability to exert a decisive influence on shaping new rules in Asia Pacific. On the other hand, China achieves major successes in structural revamping of its economy without sacrificing either sociopolitical stability or its high growth rate. China’s economy opens up, especially toward neighboring Asian states. China takes the place of the US as the chief proponent of free trade in Asia and in the world in general. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership steadily progresses; the free trade zone in Asia extends beyond its original geographic boundaries and gradually turns into a continent-wide integration project.

Asia’s military and political situation develops along the lines of the first scenario: elements of international cooperation come to exert ever greater dominance over elements of confrontation. A major military political crisis in Beijing-Washington relations is avoided; territorial and border conflicts gradually become less of an issue; the logic of economic interdependence wins over that of the geopolitical balance of power. The “reset” in China-India relations gains particular significance, comparable in its consequences to the “reset” in Russia-China relations in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. China, on the rise and confident in its power, agrees to significant concessions to India on border issues, recognizing India’s strategic leadership in South Asian trade and economic relations. India joins China’s “One Belt – One Road” project. The degree of India’s involvement in Asian trade increases rapidly.

Ultimately, Asia’s life is being determined by the emergent China–India axis, similar to the central role the Berlin-Paris axis played in West European integration in the second half of the 20th century. China–India cooperation is primarily economic but gradually spreads into the political. The US endeavors to balance the Beijing–New Delhi axis by boosting military political cooperation with India, but as India’s relations with China improve, New Delhi needs the US security umbrella less and less. Russia also nudges China’s leadership toward more active cooperation with India, since it is highly undesirable for Moscow to have to choose between Beijing and New Delhi. At the same time, additional risks emerge for Russia owing to Beijing possibly revising its economic and strategic priorities in favor of South Asia at the expense of Russia and Central Asia. Transforming the China-India axis into a fully-fledged China-India-Russia triangle remains Moscow’s strategic objective, primarily economically.

Since Washington loses positions in continental Asia, it has to rely mostly on its traditional allies on the periphery of the Asian continent, from Japan to Australia. With each passing year, these traditional allies find it increasingly hard to combine their pro-American military and political orientation with an economic reorientation toward China and the consolidation of Asia as a whole.

Multipolar balance of power

The scenario is based on preserving US hegemony on the continent (as in the first scenario), but under a significantly escalated military political situation in Asia. Increasing socioeconomic problems in most Asian countries, including China and India, lead to a rise in nationalism and political radicalism. Border conflicts and other territorial problems become the focus of national priorities, and populists bolster their positions in both democratic and authoritarian states on the continent. The arms race in Asia proceeds on an ever greater scale. Numerous attempts to agree on multilateral confidence-building military measures fail. From time to time, the continent is rocked by critical political crises and border clashes. Plans for economic unification of Asia fail under the onslaught of protectionism and bitter fights for resources.

Chronic political instability, separatist movements, religious conflicts, and numerous terrorist attacks prevent major infrastructural projects from being implemented on the continent. As a result, China’s “One Belt – One Road” project is realized in a reduced form with limited consequence for Asian countries. Instead of developing a single Asian economic space, most Asian states in their trade and economic strategies are oriented toward external markets (North America and Europe). Asian countries are locked in a fierce struggle over US and EU markets, allowing the West to secure profitable terms of trade with the East.

In such circumstances, the US can afford to play the role of an “offshore balancer”, maintaining a multilateral balance of power on the Asian continent and conducting a policy of “mediated” containment of China by providing incremental support to its real or potential opponents on the continent, including Japan, South Korea, ASEAN countries, Australia, New Zealand, and India. India is the principal, though not the only, counterbalance to China, and enters into a de-facto alliance with the US (or even becomes a de-jure American ally). Shipments of US arms to Asian countries increase. Bilateral and multilateral agreements with old US allies are renewed.

Containment of China, naturally, does not exclude Washington’s selective cooperation with Beijing, just as it does not exclude using the “Chinese menace” to further consolidate US positions in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. China’s relative weakness and the numerous tensions among Asian countries allow Washington to minimize its immediate involvement in conflicts in Asia while maintaining a complex multilateral balance of power in Asia. In other words, Washington implements the strategy that the British Empire tried to implement with varying success in continental Europe in the 19th century (China’s closest analogue in this case being the Russian Empire).

New bipolarity

The fourth scenario entails a simultaneous rise of China (as in the second scenario) and a general slump in socioeconomic, military, and political stability in Asia (as in the third scenario). Growing challenges to national security in Asian countries make it increasingly difficult to preserve the freedom of political maneuver, and the countries face a harsh choice between Beijing and Washington. As a result, Asia and the international system as a whole is divided into “Chinese” and ”American” blocs locked in a political, military and strategic, and possibly economic confrontation. Like the Soviet-American bipolar world of the 20th century, this new bipolarity gradually establishes new rules of the game acceptable to both parties, adopting the requisite agreements and generating new mechanisms for arms control. One could even imagine emergence of some new “non-aligned movement” and countries defecting from one camp to the other.

The crucial question in this scenario is the location of the “great Asian rift.” If the US succeeds in enshrining today’s tendency of India-US strategic rapprochement, the rift will divide “maritime democracies” from “continental autocracies.” If the US fails, the rift will run between the Asian continent and the island states of the Pacific. On the other hand, India may take a stance similar to that of De Gaulle’s France: while remaining within the general framework of the “maritime democracies” partnership, it will not immediately participate in anti-China military alliances (as in 1966, when Paris withdrew from NATO’s military structure).

The new bipolarity will increase Taiwan’s strategic significance for the US, and the American strategy will counteract attempts at economic integration and political unification of Taiwan and China. The Japan-China confrontation will not only be preserved, butwill gain additional impetus. With regards to Russia, the emergence of a new bipolarity will increase Russia’s dependence on China, since attempts to retain a “diversified portfolio” of political investment in Asia by expanding cooperation with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, and India will inevitably run into the harsh logic of bipolar confrontation.

It is hard to say how the new bipolarity will work in a globalized and interdependent world. Will the parties succeed in separating economic collaboration from political confrontation? Will they discipline their “junior partners” and non-state actors in global politics? Will they agree on joint approaches to global problems? Today, hardly anyone is ready to offer answers to these questions. One thing is clear: the new bipolarity of the 21st century would, in any case, be less stable and dangerous than the old bipolarity of the past century. It would apparently, sooner or later, evolve toward one of the three preceding scenarios.

“Black swans”

Any forecast should contain references to “black swans.” These are critical events with hard-to-predict probability that can fully or greatly change the forecast. Several such events may be mentioned in creating a forecast for the Asian continent.

A large-scale military conflict in Asia. Although such a conflict does not appear particularly probable, the possibility cannot be entirely discounted. Setting aside the probability of violence escalating in certain Asian countries (Afghanistan, Myanmar, etc.) and of the situation destabilizing in one of the Central Asian states, we should keep in mind at least three variants of a large-scale war on the continent: (1) a war on the Korean peninsula involving the US and China; (2) naval clashes between China and the US or land clashes between China and India; (3) another border conflict between India and Pakistan escalating into a full-blown regional war. This conflict would have different impacts on China-US relations and on the situation in Asia as a whole but, in some way, would push the continent toward new strife and bipolarity and would limit the possibilities for economic unification of the continent.

The rise of Islamic radicalism. The Muslim population of Asia, even without the Middle East, will grow at rates outstripping the overall population growth of the continent. Islam is gaining particular influence in Southeast Asia, where some countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines) already have a network of international terrorist cells. A series of major terrorist attacks or attempts to seize power would have a great influence on both the political agenda in some Asian countries and on the priorities in their cooperation. For China, equally major challenges would be Islamic radicalism joining forces with separatist movements in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and growing discrimination against ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia. The common threat could become an additional stimulus to multilateral cooperation in security, but ethno-nationalism and religious intolerance will impose strict limits on such cooperation.

An unexpected and severe financial and economic crisis that far exceeds the Asian crisis of 1997–1998 and the global financial crisis of 2007–2008 in both scale and depth. Shaken foundations of Asian economies would lead to major adjustments to the continental balance of power, changes to the macroeconomic strategy of leading Asian countries, and negative consequences for sociopolitical stability in some countries. Such a crisis could result in a relative weakening of the “Asian periphery” and strengthening of the “Asian nucleus”, primarily China. Another possible outcome of financial turmoil would be another “fine-tuning” of the global monetary financial system. It appears unlikely, however, that if the monetary and financial dominance of the West is preserved, Asia would gain anything substantial from such “fine-tuning.” Rather, Asian countries would have to shoulder major expenses to emerge from the crisis.

A major technological breakthrough of global significance. A technological revolution in one of the principal areas of today’s economy (energy, transport, artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnologies, e-commerce, 3D-printing) is capable of changing significantly the established rules of the game in global economic relations. For instance, it could create opportunities for bringing much industrial production back into Europe and the US from Asia, cutting sharply the need for Asian labour force in individual manufacturing and non-manufacturing sectors and radically changing the geography of global investment. Economic and social consequences of a major technological breakthrough would have a significant impact on the entire world, but the biggest players in new forward-looking technologies would reap the major benefits. China remains such a player, and, with qualifications, so do India and Japan. Foreign political influence would further shift from traditional instruments (military power, raw materials, and energy resources) to non-traditional (human capital, education, innovations). At the same time, Asia might become the main victim of the next generation of international cybercrime, more comprehensive and larger in scale than previously recorded.

“An economic miracle” in Russia or Japan. Russia and Japan are two large Asian countries that, for a long time, have been developing much more slowly than their dynamic neighbours on the continent. The “relative weight” of Russia and Japan in Asia’s economy is steadily falling and so are, accordingly, their long-term possibilities for influencing the future of Asia’s political space. Russia and Japan also have similarly severe demographic problems not typical of most other countries on the continent. A further drop in the “relative weight” of the two countries on the continent is considered by leading actors both in Asia and beyond. The presumption is that, should current trends remain, Japan will follow in the wake of US policies in the Asia Pacific and Russia will follow that of China’s Asian policies. Even so, if Japan’s “Abenomics” or Russia’s “economic spurt” strategy during Vladimir Putin’s fourth presidential term succeed, the situation might change drastically. The configuration of continental balances will become far more complex and the new continental order is likely to be more stable.

First published in our partner RIAC

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The Implication of China’s Diplomacy in APEC and ASEAN

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It is truly unusual that the Chinese President Xi Jinping and its Premier Li Keqiang are visiting the same area during nearly the same time: Xi’s visit to APEC from15th to 21st November and Li’s visit to ASEAN on 15th November. Yet, if we look into China’s foreign policy towards this area over the past years since President Xi took power, it is not difficult to understand both Xi’s and Li’s official visits to the “larger Pacific” and the meaning beyond.

As we know, President Xi has reiterated that the Pacific is large enough for the countries involved to share the prosperity with each other. In order to achieve the inclusive rather than exclusive benefits for all, China’s diplomacy aims to reject any kind of unilateralism, trade protectionism and anti-globalization. Given this, Xi’s at APEC and Li’s at AEASN is defined as a signal of China’s diplomacy to further reform and bold openness.

As a rising great country, China is surely eager to expand its investment and trade with the south Pacific area, and Papua New Guinea (PNG) is the first country visited by Chinese president. What is more, PNG joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) early 2018 and then became the first state of Pacific islands to sign the MoU on “The Belt and Road Initiative” construction. As the theme “Harnessing Inclusive Opportunities, Embracing the Digital Future,” the APEC summit will focus on Regional economic integration, digital economy, connectivity, sustainable and inclusive growth and so forth.

Also during Premier Li’s visit to the ASEAN, he highlighted the necessity of the collaboration and mutual benefit among the countries involved on the 21st China-ASEAN leaders meeting. This is also the 21st ASEAN Plus Three Summit (10+3) and the 13th East Asia Summit (EAS).

Quite understandable, since the 1960s, the center of world economy has shifted from North Atlantic to Asia-Pacific, its dynamic growth in the region create countless jobs and push the development of world economy. This is the reason that Asia-Pacific region has the most trade agreements and the most complicated economic architecture around world. APEC and ASEAN, as two institutions that possess most member states, are the very pillars of the tumbledown regional economic architecture. APEC was launched by Australia and later included 21 member states in the region, amongst are United States, China, Japan, the economic giant three of the world economy. ASEAN is an institution that consist of ten small and middle states. Though they are not strong enough to meet the challenges from the power politics alone, ASEAN is a core force that firmly facilitate the economic integration of the whole region of East Asia and the Pacific. No matter what the way they embrace, they are the de facto basic regionalism of Asia-Pacific. The withdrawing of United States from Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and hard-achieved Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) once brought the regional economic architecture a fig leave and strengthened the impact of APEC and ASEAN.

As a result, the two visits of Chinese top leaders to the same region at the same time definitely attract worldwide attention, because they not only represent China’s recent diplomatic focus but also mark the fact that Asia-Pacific region has become one of the vital fields where China’s diplomacy will be actively conducting in terms of the Belt and Road Initiative, and carry on the good-neighbor policy. Since China has argued for creating a peaceful development milieu, to enhance economic transformation and upgrading oversea markets and partners in Asia-Pacific region.

Consider these facets, China, as the second largest economy, aims to promote its well-articulated stance on multilateralism and inclusiveness and globalization. As both President Xi and Premier Li have strongly said that China is ready to work with Pacific island countries to endeavor together and sail for a better future for bilateral relations. For the sake of that goal, China always believes that as long as all the countries involved have firm confidence in each other’s development, cooperation and the future of East Asia, and work closely together and forge ahead, all sides would achieve more and reach a higher level in the next 15 years.

For sure, China belongs to the part of a larger Asia-Pacific family, and the Chinese government defines its goal as the shared prosperity of this region. Therefore, China will continue to work hard and constructively to promote the overall development of impoverished but promising Pacific island countries under the Belt and Road Initiative.

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An uncertain step in moving China-Japan relations

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Authors: Meshach Ampwera  & Luo Xinghuan

On October 26, Chinese President Xi Jinping met Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and praised that both China and Japan have pledged to strengthen bilateral ties amid continuous efforts made by the two nations. Xi said, “Bilateral relations have returned to the right track and gained positive momentum, which is something the two sides should cherish.” As the two largest economies in Asia, China and Japan are also the vital players in Asian security and the global development.

In addition, since this is the first official visit to China by a Japanese PM in a seven-year “Cold Peace” period, it is widely assumed that Abe’s visit symbolizes the resumption of high-level visits and will be followed by an increasing rapprochement between China and Japan. True, the leaders of the two economic giants witnessed a wide range of agreements, including a 30 billion US dollar worth of currency swap pact, the establishment of a maritime and air liaison mechanism, and enhancing people-to-people exchanges.

Yet, three factors have to be considered seriously in looking into Japanese foreign policy given the current changing geopolitical landscape regionally and globally. First, Japan has still regarded itself as a “defeated” state during the WWII. Since then, Japan’s postwar posture has frequently described as a new pacifism; yet in fact it is considerably more complex. As Henry Kissinger put it: “Japan had acquiesced in the U.S. predominance and followed the strategic landscape and the imperatives of Japan’s survival and long-term success.” This means that the governing elites in Tokyo used to hold the constitution drafted by U.S. occupying authorities with its stringent prohibition on military action, and adapted to their long-term strategic purposes. As a result, Japan was transformed from the pacific aspects of the postwar order (that prohibited military action) into a nation that has focused on other key elements of national strategy, particularly using economic leverage regionally and globally, though not uncontroversial.

Second, in a recently-released paper written by the former US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, he maintained that “Japan is a close ally of the U.S. and a rising military power, too, because of legal and constitutional changes of great significance championed by Prime Minister Abe.” In practice, the Japanese administration has engineered an expansion to enable its military to operate regionally and even globally in response to the rise of China, violent extremist activity in Asia, and the alleged North Korean belligerence.

Actually in 2013, Japanese Government White Paper revealed a desire to become a “normal country” with an active alliance policy. In a searching for a new role in the Asia-pacific region, Japan aims to act as an “anchor” of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) concluded in 2018 after the withdrawal of the United States. Now it involves 11 countries and representing 13.4% of global GDP ($ 13.5tri.). As the largest economy of the CPTPP, Japan has been active in moving it forward. Early this year when the British government stated it is exploring becoming a member of the CPTPP to stimulate exports after Brexit in 2019, Abe stated that the United Kingdom would be welcomed to join the partnership. It is said that even the U.S. reconsiders possibly rejoining the CPTPP if it were a “substantially new deal” for the United States.

Japan’s ardent involvement into the US-led strategy in Asia has also been endorsed to expand steadily as a normal power regionally and globally. For example, the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) is the result of the joint declaration issued by the India and Japan in 2016. Although it is premised on four pillars of development and cooperation, it is self-evident that the AAGC reflects a growing special “strategic and global partnership between India and Japan” in which both sides have viewed China’s growing, pragmatic and successful presence in Africa as a menace. There is no question that AAGC is a well-crafted vision and agenda of both India and Japan, linking with their own development priorities. But with increasing pressure from Washington and Brussels, Japan and India are in effect driven by the option for the AAGC to rebalance China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

From the inception of the BRI, they have more than ever before been concerned with being isolated in Africa by Beijing’s initiative. But, as Ampwera Meshach, a researcher at Jilin University put it, “Africa is on the growth trend and offers potential markets and raw materials. For this reason, Africa largely needs pragmatic and scientific, technological and development- oriented initiatives and these are clearly reflected in China’s BRI.” In light of this, the AAGC does neither reflect a novel nor pragmatic approach on how it fits within the African agenda. Instead, AAGC’s foundational pillars seem more inclined to the Western cooperation approaches that have for decades not been translated into development.

Controversially, two days before Abe’s visit to Beijing, Japan had decided to scrap official development assistance (ODA) to China, which is a program where Japan provides aids to developing countries starting back in 1954. Even though some people argue that Japan’s ODA is reasonably cancelled because China’s GDP is even 2.5 times larger than that of Japan, yet, it is necessary for Chinese to be aware of the reality that Japan is a longstanding ally of the United States. As Japan has long been an economic power, its impressive military capabilities would not be confined to a strict policy of territorial defense—no projection of Japanese power or the U.S.-Japan alliance to the region as a whole.

It is during the Abe’s administration which has recognized an environment of growing Chinese assertiveness, violent extremist activity in Asia, and North Korean hostility, and therefore, Japan has eagerly participated in Asian security, including training and exercising with other nations, beyond a purely passive, home-island defense role. This makes it an increasingly important player serving the US strategy in Asia but challenging the rise of China globally.

It is true that Abe tweeted about the trip — while recognizing the challenges in moving bilateral relations forward, he said that he would still work to “push Sino-Japan relations to the next level”. Given the two countries’ economic links, it is only understandable that there is a need for the two sides to come closer. Moreover, Japanese businesses has been an extremely active force behind the government’s shift of attitude on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Yet, all in all, we should never ignore that Japan’s ambitious foreign policy has gone beyond the economic goal.

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Red Flags: Why Xi’s China is in Jeopardy – Book Review

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George Magnus writes about the dangers of the Middle-Income Trap in the Middle Kingdom, among other issues, in Red Flags: Why Xi’s China is in Jeopardy. President Xi’s face adorns the book cover, with his name looming above.  Fitting, seeing as China has removed presidential term limits; China’s fate is thus likely to be tied to the decision making of Xi for the next couple decades.

Magnus writes about the dangers of Xi’s likely ascendance to President-for-Life.  Ever since the excesses of Mao’s one-man rule, China’s Communist Party has largely ruled by consensus, while provincial governments have served as a counterweight to federal authority via control of their land and many of their local State Owned Enterprises (SOEs).  Xi is challenging this staus quo.  So-called Xi Jinping Thought is now official party canon, being taught in schools and in the media.  The 2012 crackdown on corruption by Xi in his inaugural year was widely seen as a pretense for taking out political opponents and sending a message to his potential opponents.  Ever since, Xi has been working to centralize power to himself.  Magnus notes that being leader for life largely shields Xi from short-term popular discontent, but also means that every long-term decision, good or bad, will become part of Xi’s legacy.  Hence, the book informally reads as a personal policy checklist for Xi.

Red Flags lists four, well, red flags of likely impediments to Chinese economic development.  Firstly is debt.  China has been an unprecedented money-making machine for the past three decades or so.  However, signs are starting to appear of a possible economic slowdown.  Most significant is the debt-GDP ratio, which has skyrocketed over the past few years.  Magnus writes extensively about how China’s growth, up to this point, has largely been fuelled by credit (debt).  China’s much-maligned (by Trump, most notably) trade balance surplus has shrunk to no more than a few percent, statistically insignificant.  China could theoretically make up for shrinking foreign demand for goods and services with domestic consumers.  Magnus is unfortunately the bearer of bad news in this regard: “Household savings rose from about 5% of disposable income in the late 1970s to about 38% in 2016, or just over 25% of GDP. Savings by companies are also elevated, amounting to about 17% of GDP in 2016.”

Hence, the Xi regime has been trying to maintain economic growth via ever-greater sums of state investment funding.  Magnus explicitly warns against this: “The reason the investment rate has to fall is because the more China relies on it, the more inefficient that investment will become.”  Such a statement might seem self-evident, but Magnus backs it up with facts.  For instance, he points out, “Between 1978 and 2006, for example, China spent between 2 to 4 yuan of investment to get 1 additional yuan of GDP. Since then, the amount has risen steadily to reach about 9 yuan in 2015, corresponding to a marked fall in investment efficiency.”

Magnus writes a lot about the inefficiency of China’s thousands and thousands of SOEs.  “Officially, and according to some China-watchers, SOEs now account for just a fifth of output and a tenth of employment. The presumption though that the rest of the economy is in private hands, as we understand it in the West, is incorrect. Many private firms have large or majority state owners, who exercise significant control over senior appointments and corporate strategy, and state ownership is often disguised by multiple layers of investment companies ultimately owned by a state entity. Allowing for these opaque adjustments, the purely private part of the enterprise sector may actually be little higher than 20–30 per cent.”  SOEs have built much of modern China, but their efforts are increasingly being wasted on skyscrapers and airports that remain almost empty, Chinese Roads-to-Nowhere.  A blank check invites planners to ignore long-terms concerns of viability, blinded by short-term gains that go directly into the pockets of Party-affiliated contractors.  China’s financial services sector isn’t much better off.  Magnus writes about all the bailouts, takeovers and general heavy-handedness by the government of various Chinese banks and other related companies.  Due to a slowdown in trade and many other issues discussed in the book, state investment will figure to play an ever-larger role in China’s economy, inefficiency be damned.

The book’s second diagnosed problem for China’s future growth is its currency, the renminbi.  Xi mirrors the isolationist mindset of China’s ancient emperors with regards to cash inflows and outflows.  It’s very hard for Chinese investors to send renminbi out of the country.  Likewise, China restricts the ability of foreigners to own reserves of renminbi, or Chinese financial assets in general.  The renminbi is subject not only to this lack of liquidity, but also the confines of a planned economy.  China is infamous for its strict control of its currency valuation, as well as its monetary policy via diktats, investment and bailouts.  Its ownership of USD and other foreign currency reserves must always be flawlessly balanced to safely back up the value of the renminbi.  This resulted, for instance, in the selling off of a trillion of its USD reserves between 2014-2016.  The combination of currency illiquidity and over-management limits the ability of the renminbi to fuel Chinese economic growth.

Thirdly, the book mentions the so-called Middle Income Trap.  Once a country reaches a certain benchmark of development, it’s hard to maintain further momentum.  China’s already experiencing slowed growth due to factors such as increased global manufacturing competition.  As Magnus points out, China has already had its coming-out party to the world economy.  It can’t join the WTO again or eliminate mass hunger again.  Likewise, China has stalled in terms of rural development and education.  Rural China is increasingly falling behind the major cities and the hukou system of restricted movement and rights for migrant workers isn’t helping.  Students in China still attend far fewer years of school than students in developed countries like the US, especially in advanced fields like IT.  These issues of inequality and 21st-century education must be addressed if China is to fully develop.

Lastly, Magnus writes about the demographics crisis.  China has one of the highest ratios of elderly people in the world.  Combine this with China’s 1.45 birth rate and the gender disparity caused by the 1-Child Policy and you have a ticking time bomb.  The workforce is increasingly running out of youngsters who can take the place of retirees, causing a slowdown in economic output.  The higher the elderly population becomes, the more each working-age person will have to contribute to pensions and healthcare.  The economic burden that only-children will have to shoulder taking care of their aging parents will inevitably lower marriage rates and thus further lower the unsustainably low birth rate.

This is the most dire problem because there’s very little that society can do about it.  Xenophobia has prevented any meaningful amount of migration to China, but even if China were to let in tens of millions of foreign workers, that would be a drop in the bucket for a nation of 1.4B people.  Even after China ended its One-Child Policy, couples are still averaging well below 2 children, despite increasing prosperity.  The only real hope for China’s demography problem would be a literal ex machina: automation.  Robots may be able to generate untold wealth that could buoy a small nation like Singapore, but even an army of robots is unlikely to completely offset the gradual loss of hundreds of millions of working-age people to aging.  Even if AI is a magic bullet for all productivity woes, it take probably at least a century to meaningfully scale up, by which time China’s population will have substantially shrank.  It doesn’t help that China is, in many respects, barely keeping pace in the AI race with the US, Japan and the EU.  In the race for artificial intelligence, even being a year behind the competition can cost trillions of dollars; China’s tech sector will likely take a few decades to completely match Silicon Valley.  Lastly, it should be noted that not even innovation can overcome the limit resources of our planet.  We’re already running out of industrial resources like oil and lithium.  It would be foolish to place all of one’s eggs in the basket of a sci-fi utopia.

Red Flags is a very detailed and interesting book about the future of China.  Magnus isn’t anti-China by any means; he gives credit to China’s marvelous successes and doesn’t moralize.  If anything, the book was too generous by barely mentioning the unrest in Xinjiang and not mentioning the occupation of Tibet at all.  In an objective fashion, he succinctly explains China’s problems and offers possible solutions.  China has shown an unprecedented ability to adapt to change.  This flexibility may wind up being undone not external adversaries or limitations, but by increasing autocracy.  Dictatorship has rarely resulted in long-term, across-the-board growth.  One can look at a fellow Communist country for an example: the Soviet Union.  Though the USSR made impressive leaps in technology, manufacturing and agricultural output and human longevity, it was ultimately undone by its ideological rigidity.  A lack of accountability for its leaders meant that the USSR was forever a captive to bad policy.  Likewise, a lack of freedom stunted innovation.  If Xi is to avoid the pitfalls of the USSR, he must avoid letting his power get to his head and embrace a flow of ideas from both fellow Party members and private citizens.  Xi’s consolidation of control and crackdown on dissent would point otherwise, unfortunately.  Only time will tell if China will continues to beat the odds…

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