Saturday, September 4, 2010

Afloat on a Chinese tide

China’s economic rise has brought the rest of emerging Asia huge benefits. But the region still needs the West

WITH markets still on edge after the worst financial crisis in decades, and fears of renewed recession stalking the West, this week seemed a poignant moment for China’s People’s Daily to detect a “golden age of development”, for Asia at least. Yet developing Asia, led by China itself, is booming. China’s GDP barrelled along in the first half of the year, growing by 11.1% compared with a year earlier. The newly industrialised little tigers—Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan—as well as most of South-East Asia seem to have fully recovered from the downturn. Even Thailand, mired in political turmoil, grew by 9.1% in the second quarter.

The dream is that this gilded future is now insulated from rich-world downturns: that China—now having, after all, officially overtaken Japan as the world’s second-largest economy—can drive growth for the whole region. One day, maybe. Not yet.
That the idea has currency at all reflects a remarkable transformation in itself.

During the East Asian financial crash of the late 1990s, many in the region blamed China as a proximate cause of the debacle. Its emergence as a big competitor, the argument went, stalled the rapid export growth on which countries such as Thailand had come to depend, poking large holes in their current accounts, and precipitated the collapse of confidence.

Since then, and especially since the surge that followed its accession to the WTO in 2001, China’s economic clout has grown as fast—or faster—in its own region as anywhere. And with East Asia, unlike with Europe and America, China tends to run trade deficits. It is now the biggest trading partner for both Australia and India. It is the biggest export market for Japan, South Korea and Taiwan; the second-biggest for Malaysia and Thailand; the third-biggest for Indonesia and the Philippines, and so on.

Everyone is waking up to the potential of the Chinese market. Indian poultry farmers have learned that once-discarded chicken’s feet can actually be sold. Hoteliers in Bali grapple with night-classes in Mandarin.

Still, few are yet confident in the “golden age”. People’s Daily used the term in reporting the views of “many” taking part in the “Sixth Beijing-Tokyo Forum” in Tokyo. It seems unlikely the many included the Japanese contingent. The economic news at home was worrying—though it would have been grimmer still were it not for the healthy growth in recent years in exports to China. In this context, the report read rather like a young sports champion consoling the veteran whom he has just bested.

Even in much of young, vigorous developing Asia the boom seems too precarious for triumphalism. One reason for this is statistical. Growth figures in parts of Asia have been so spectacularly good partly because they were so spectacularly bad in the first half of 2009. Singapore’s extraordinary first-half GDP growth of 17.9% looks slightly less otherworldly against last year’s first-half contraction of 5.3%. In the depth of the crisis, as trade for a while seized up, the region, as one of the most trade-dependent in the world, saw growth plummet.

That trade dependence is another reason for sobriety. Outside of China and India (which this week reported 8.8% second-quarter growth compared with a year earlier), developing Asia remains heavily dependent on external demand. And despite the heady growth of sales to China, the most important sources of demand remain the “G3” of America, Europe and Japan.

Asian exports to China fall broadly into three categories. Industrialised countries, notably Japan and South Korea, have found a big market for capital goods. Countries such as Australia and Indonesia have fed China’s growing appetite for commodities and raw materials such as coal, iron ore and palm oil. But many Asian exporters have been selling components, as part of globalised supply chains in which “made in China” often means “assembled in China from bits produced all over the place”.

It is hard to work out from published trade figures where components imported to China from, say, Malaysia, end up. But Malaysian officials believe that some 60% of their exports to China are destined for the G3. (By contrast, less than 30% of Indonesia’s exports to China are re-exported.) A recent study of such “global production sharing” in East Asia by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) concluded that it has played a pivotal role in the region’s dynamism and growing interdependence. But it has not lessened the region’s dependence on the global economy.

Other studies have also found that China has already had quite a big positive impact on growth in other countries in the region. Besides providing an export market, it is a source of tourists, investment opportunities and demand for services. And, less measurably, it is a source of economic optimism: a boost to consumer and business sentiment.

Not quite the rising tide that lifts all boats

Its economy, however, for all its three-decades-long boom, still only accounts for 8% of global GDP in current dollars; domestic private consumption, though growing fast, remains a small part of national GDP by global standards (36%). This will grow as China reforms its economy to give a bigger share to household income, for example by lifting wages for China’s factory workers. On August 29th Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister, must have enjoyed lecturing Japanese visitors on the need to tackle the problem of “relatively low wages” at Japanese factories in China.

This “rebalancing”, though, could take decades. In the short term the high-speed growth much of the rest of the region has enjoyed will moderate. Growth will not be measured against the worst of the slump; and faltering recovery in the G3 will dent exports, however well China does. The golden age is not here yet. The Economist

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