Economic inequality and international disputes
Across parts of Asia and in many
communities around the globe, Jan. 31 marked the beginning of the Chinese New
Year – the year of the horse. As friends and families celebrate, and
communities come together to partake in festivities, this new year invites an
opportunity to reflect on the past and look to the future.
more than four decades have passed since the People’s Republic of China
replaced the Taiwanese government of the Republic of China in the United
Nations as the sole representative of China. In this relatively short span of
time, the once largely peasant country has become the largest economic engine
in Asia-Pacific, giving many economists reasons to predict that it will
eventually overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy.
transition should not have come as a surprise. The economic reforms pushed for
by Deng Xiaoping helped to liberate the country from its strict adherence to
stifling policies. While far from a free capitalist state, China’s economic
model has long since abandoned its communist roots. These economic reforms,
paired with a large and comparatively cheap labor force, helped transform China
into the world’s factory, producing goods at low cost and attracting foreign
the benefits of these reforms have not been equally shared by everyone. Those
living in the coastal provinces, specifically those in major urban areas, have
largely benefited from the newfound wealth, particularly in education, health,
and access to government services, whereas those living in rural China have
followed behind slowly.
incomes have risen faster than white-collar wages,
China remains one of the most economically
unequal countries in the world, to say nothing of
the concentration of wealth in the hands of the country’s princelings and elites.
borders, China’s newfound wealth has also allowed it to bolster its presence on
the world stage, investing
billions of dollars across Africa to secure
access to natural resources. However, since joining the UN in 1972, it remains
to be seen just how much China has actually contributed to the international
and territorial conflicts in Asia-Pacific, especially the East China Sea of
recent with regards to China’s Air
Defence Identification Zone over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands with Japan, as well as the long-running South China Sea
disputes, have brought the wrong kind of attention. Seen not as a peaceful rising
power but an aggressor by some of its neighbors (of whom many are belligerents
in disputes involving China), these neighbors, such as Vietnam and the
Philippines, have taken their concerns to the international community.
Philippines have continued to pursue their grievances against China in the
international courts, while Vietnam has sought to
balance China’s rise with the US in the form a comprehensive
partnership. If this century should belong to
Asia-Pacific, it has certainly started off on the wrong foot.
If China is
to grow – and there has yet to be any true opposition to China’s rise from
traditional powers such as the US or Europe – it must defuse tensions with its
neighbors. Arenas such as the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security forum held in
Singapore provide opportunities for Asian-Pacific states to discuss pressing
defense and security issues.
charts its path for this New Year and beyond, it must contend with an
ever-changing society and its perception abroad. Just as Deng Xiaoping helped
transform China’s economy, China’s current leaders address the unfair
concentration of wealth at home, and the concerns of neighboring countries. In
the same way one might express good fortune and happiness when greeting friends
and families during the New Year, one can hope that China will bring the same
to its people and neighbors.
Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa. His
research covers Vietnamese politics, international relations and international