Governance: The Blind Spot in China’s Narrative

By Ernie Bower

Chinese Drummers ready prior to the 2008 Olympics Opening Ceremony in Beijing. Source: Chengphoto’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Australian political scientist Hugh White’s argument that the coming century will be dominated by China and that, therefore, the most rational foreign policy course for Australia and others to follow would be to recognize China’s dominance and align their countries accordingly has a gaping blind spot. Namely: governance. The truth is no countries in the Asia Pacific want to emulate Chinese governance models and the Chinese government is doing its best not to let its own increasingly empowered people know much about regional trends that are inarguably moving toward broader political participation.

Beijing is furious with the new Burmese government over its decision to halt construction of the Myitsone Dam at the top of the Irrawaddy River. China is working hard to shut down any news coverage of the Arab Spring. The transition to democracy in Indonesia, Prime Minister Najib Razak’s political reform package in Malaysia, and even the Thai elections are topics that are decidedly not being promoted by the Chinese government and in public media circles.

While China’s economic growth and dynamism are welcomed nearly unanimously, Beijing has rattled its neighbors in Asia by bearing its fangs on sovereignty issues in the South China (or East or West Philippine) Sea and in disputed waters around Japan such as the Diaoyu and Senkaku Islands. The region is now engaged in a collective and iterative research project to understand what China wants and how it will act as it continues to amass predominant economic power in the Asia Pacific.

Recent moves by Australia, New Zealand, and the United States have rightly focused on strengthening alliances and, in the case of New Zealand, a strategic partnership. Efforts have focused on security and economics.

Last month, the United States and Australia celebrated the 60th anniversary of ANZUS (the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty) and held one of the most substantive Australia-United States Ministerial Dialogues in recent history. Expect to see announcements about U.S.-Australia joint military facilities in Western Australia during President Barack Obama’s visit to Canberra in mid-November. U.S. Marines are planning a historic visit to New Zealand in the coming months.

In addition, both Australia and New Zealand are engaged with the United States and six other countries in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations. Those negotiations will get a massive boost in Washington when and if, as hoped, the three current free trade agreements with Korea, Colombia, and Panama are passed by the U.S. Congress—perhaps in time for the state visit of Korean president Lee Myung-bak on October 12–13.

U.S. friends in Asia are counseling the Americans to embrace discussions of economics and trade in the East Asia Summit (EAS) when the leaders meet in Bali in November. To date, the perception in Asia is that the United States wants to put its trade and investment eggs in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and TPP baskets—a view that largely reflects current U.S. policy. Allies warn the United States that, as it engages for the first time in the EAS, it must welcome a balanced approach to developing regional architecture by tabling a forward-leaning trade agenda for the EAS to augment a more substantive security and political agenda, for which Washington is lobbying hard.

America’s friends are right. A balanced approach is required to establish a strong and sustainable regional framework that is robust enough to eventually encourage the Chinese to assimilate and enjoy their growth, but at the same time play according to rules and norms it helps develop with other countries in the region, not necessarily those dictated by Beijing.

This is where the governance agenda becomes a vital pillar for the United States and its allies and partners. The key to this approach is to support the incredible developments around the region in terms of reform, empowerment of citizens, and strengthening institutions that promote broader political participation. No one country has a perfect model, as we can clearly see from recent crises and protests in the region, but promoting good governance, transparency, and reform as a foundation for economic growth is a winning formula.

Eventually, this platform is likely to be compelling to China. In the meantime, it will give countries the confidence to participate in the positive economic boost from enhanced Asia Pacific economic integration, while building institutions, broadening participation, enjoying the impact of strong economic growth, and enhancing regional stability.

Hugh White is correct that China’s rise will have a major impact on foreign and economic policy. But his idea that alignment with China, given its current norms and uncertain views about its claims to the South China Sea and other disputed territory, is inevitable and rational can and should be strongly challenged by a focus on strengthening governance in Asia.

Ernest Z. Bower is a senior adviser, director of the Southeast Asia Program, and co-director of the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Ernest Z. Bower

Ernest Z. Bower

Ernest Bower is Chair of the Southeast Asia Advisory Board at CSIS.


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