Tuesday, October 4, 2011
With the Tables Turned, Will the Beijing Consensus Be the Way of the Future?
How quickly times change. It was only in 2005 that Robert Zoellick, then the US deputy secretary of state, urged China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. Six years later, the developed world has become a stakeholder in the Chinese system.
The concept of a responsible stakeholder is an interesting one. It entails a country interpreting its national interest in such a way that it helps to sustain and maintain the international system. In China’s case, some scholars have suggested, domestic political reforms were necessary for it to undertake this interpretation.
Critics of that position disagreed with it for two reasons. The first was that the international system to which China was being asked to subscribe was not of China’s making. That system had emerged after World War II and had been shaped largely by the United States. The international system that existed at the beginning of the 21st century was the product of a cold war that the West had won. Although China had contributed to that victory through its closeness to the United States, Beijing was not the principal architect of the system. Why, then, should it uphold that system automatically?
This question led to the second reason. Those asking China to liberalize its political system in order to become a responsible international stakeholder had themselves not done anything of the kind during or after the cold war. Why should the Chinese do so? Certainly, Chinese politics would evolve — but from within. China could not, and would not, change as a condition for joining the international system.
The debate over China’s role took off and then fizzled out. Realities took over.
It is unlikely that the debate will be revisited seriously anytime soon. This is because the debt crisis in the euro zone and America’s budget woes have shifted the spotlight to what China may choose to do for the developed world, not what it would have to do to gain a place at the high table of power and influence. The tables have been turned.
This was apparent at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions, held in Dalian, China, last month. In his keynote speech, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao diplomatically gave the assurance that “China believes in Europe’s ability to overcome the difficulties.” He even went a step further and declared that his country was willing to invest more in Europe.
However, he warned in no uncertain terms that “countries must first put their own house in order.” That was not the tone of an importunate country seeking entry to the international system on terms determined by the leaders of the system. It was the tone of a confident national leader speaking of an international system in which his country was at the heart of the world market. And as my grandfather would say, “No money, no talk.” Wen’s call to Europe — and, by extension, the West — to put its economic house in order was a throwback to erstwhile calls asking China to put its political house in order.
The West now has a stake in China’s stability, which gives it the ability to make a difference for the better in world affairs.
How should China respond to the demands being made of it today?
The short answer is: by continuing to behave responsibly.
The best example of responsible behavior is China’s own record. It behaved responsibly when it eschewed short-term measures by refusing to devalue its currency during the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis. Any such move by a leading exporter would have contributed to competitive devaluation among Asian countries and deepened the region’s economic misery.
Beijing’s sacrifice did not go unnoticed. At a time when Western observers were lecturing Asian countries, including Indonesia, on the faults in their economic systems, China quietly helped those countries cope with the crisis. Its stance was reciprocated when a recovering Asia turned to Beijing and embraced its charm offensive. China had played its hand correctly in the long term.
Today, China can help stabilize the international system by keeping its markets open to imports and by encouraging domestic consumption so as to follow a more sustainable developmental model.
Although the Chinese market cannot replace either the United States or the European market for most exporters, China, as the second largest economy on earth, can help them absorb some of the slack in demand in Western markets until the global economy recovers.
At a broader level, China should continue its integration with global structures that promote peace, security and stability. Indeed, it is already a responsible stakeholder, as seen in its willingness and ability to contribute to the creation of international public goods, not least growth, nonproliferation and regional security. It can improve its human rights situation, and it should do so — not because of foreign pressure but because the Chinese people deserve a better human rights environment.
All in all, China’s contribution to the world order is indispensable at a time of flux. It was not long ago that people spoke of a Washington Consensus of free markets and democracy as the panacea for the world’s economic ills. Rampant neoliberalism undermined that so-called consensus in the developing world, and the developed world appears to be headed in that direction.
Democracy does not figure prominently in the Beijing Consensus, which is an alternative plan for the developing world that emphasizes the guiding hand of the state. This consensus is not the only one on offer because democracy is an ingredient of a country’s long-term economic success.
However, the world that emerges from the euro zone debt crisis and America’s budget cuts would do well not to reject the Beijing Consensus merely because it is not a Western product. Just as the China Price changed world markets once, China Inc. will transform the verities of international relations in the years to come.
We all have a stake in China’s ability to give the international system a new lease on life.
By John Riady editor at large of the Jakarta Globe and chair of the Governing Board at the Center for Business Law Studies at the Pelita Harapan University School of Law.