Monday, February 3, 2014

China in the Year of the Horse

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.

A little 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. 

This 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 investment.

However, 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. 

Although blue-collar 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.

Beyond its 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 community.

Maritime 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.

The 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. 

As China 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. 

(Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa. His research covers Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law.)

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