A Chinese construction worker in Colombo. Attaching no strings, but instead underpinning the basic common factors of peace, cooperation and openness, China has proved to be an immense source of strength to Asia. In addition, economic security, which is undoubtedly at the heart of China’s policy, has been identified as a key concern in the context of security, a recognition that bodes well for the entire Asian region – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
By George I. H. Cooke
Security, in its many forms and manifestations, grip persons, confound societies, baffle nations and complicate international relations. The realisation of the risks involved in security, loom in the absence of the latter.
A predominant phenomenon in Asia is the continuous attempt to dissipate the fear psychosis that lapses in security could bring to bear on life and limb. People look to their governments for safety. Governments look to partners on the international stage to reduce the risk of danger and infringement of the right to a safe and secure existence. This interdependence is of paramount importance as states rely on each other for counsel and assistance in thwarting the corollaries of security breaches.
Since ancient times, security and its preservation, has remained at the top of agendas, dominated discussions, precipitated tension and even resulted in wars. Whilst threats from non-state entities are of dominant concern, many states contend with and exist in fear of other states and their apparatus, whether military or otherwise.
The situation is not, however, as grim as it might be predisposed to be, especially in the Asian context. Or rather it may not necessarily be perceived as negatively as it might appear. Asia as a whole possesses the potential to co-exist albeit certain misgivings and tensions, which are present in all regional groupings.
East Asia in particular has made vast strides in the march towards regionalism and kept at bay, to a large extent, the threats posed by suspicion, reservations and disputes. This success is believed to originate in the ‘…very fact that ASEAN has so far prevented its members from going to war with one another, given that ASEAN was considered as the Balkans of the East in the 1960s.’1
The economic dimension of security is a key component in its study. Globalisation and economic security, whilst possessing the possibility of partnering progress, also retain the ability to cause much destruction. Towards this end Miles Kahler claimed that globalisation has engineered ‘two anxieties that have factored into the definition of economic security.
First, the opening of borders has generated unease over the growth of illicit cross-border exchange in drugs and contraband, criminal and terrorist networks, illegal migration, and cross-border movement of pathogens such as the SARS virus. Second, economic liberalisation and globalisation have the potential to engender a new vulnerability to international markets through the economic and political volatility that they produce.’2
It is in this context of security being at the forefront of continued caution that this paper strives to examine Asian economic security and its ramifications, while examining China’s role and the possibility of partnering policy, progress and prosperity. Has a cohesive policy of planning been considered? Is this an immense source of strength or an insurmountable threat? Is economic security at the heart of discourse among states in the region, thus making it the common denominator?
Economic security: problems and prospects
Understanding the scope of security has been widely enmeshed in military and political aspects. The need for guaranteeing and preserving security has been left to militaries with political will backing the process.
The deep-rooted, entrenched nature of globalisation and the Asian financial crisis could be regarded as two of the turning points in making states realise the vast potential their economies possessed, the harmful characteristics of them and the spillover effect that such a crisis could have on a region and beyond.
The Asian financial crisis, the region’s baptism by fire, renewed hope in resilience. It is this resilience that is today at the crux of trade and commerce as states amalgamate, in the context of ASEAN, and persevere to uncover potential. This realm, which hadn’t been focused on sufficiently in the past, thereby rose in significance. The globalised nature of economies contributed to the crisis as countries ventured into new areas and battled fresh challenges to overcome that which they were forced to face.
As the planet’s largest and most populace continent covering an expanse of 44, 579, 000 km2, Asia is home to roughly 60% of the world’s population. The region possesses the second largest nominal GDP of all continents, but the largest when measured in purchasing power parity.
Whilst China has grown by leaps and bounds, maintaining annual growth in the 1990s and early 2000s at more than 8%, today the economy stands as a giant on the Asian domain. Overall resilience has remained a cornerstone of growth and development, whilst all-out war has been avoided.
Asia has faced and endured untold levels of poverty which have been and are being addressed in new and innovative ways; massive population growth and its resulting implications that have burdened, yet increased manpower and potential; natural disasters that have taken a significant toll on person and property, but increased levels of resilience and improved facilities thereafter; and financial crises that have crippled economies in the short term, yet strengthened them subsequently.
Economies and their leadership have proven time and again that although might and muscle can overpower at times, right and resilience play a key role in determining the course the region and her members would traverse. While the heavyweights have played ball, their smaller counterparts have certainly not been sitting it out on the benches.
The examples, indicators and aspects of this diverse region, continue to amaze the most cynical of critics. Despite irritants erupting within, mainly between neighbours, across borders and straits, and betwixt adversaries of doctrine and policy, these countries have been able to overcome with resolve and determination, their differences, to a large extent. Boding well, this assimilation, understanding and constructive advancement has resulted in a constructive, well-matured region.
China: a successful neighbour
Sixty years ago Chou Enlai strode the world stage. His personality and policy were articulated at the 1955 Bandung Conference at which he laid out the role he envisioned for his country and his style of governance. Dispelling misgivings and assuaging prejudice, the Chinese Premier led China into the global arena with his own savoir-flair style of diplomacy.3
The newly formed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which is set to rival the Bretton Woods institutions, has marked the presence of 57 countries so far. The desire for many countries outside the region to join the AIIB signals not just the potential of the bank but the attention it has received. Foreboding well for the Asian region, in which it is headquartered, the US$ 50 billion dollar bank is geared towards achieving Asia’s growing investment needs and intends revolutionising the infrastructure industry, aiding development and taking the Chinese success story to the region and beyond.4
Having reached out and strengthened relations in Asia and in Africa over the last several decades, China’s venture into Latin America has proved noteworthy. Premier Li Kequiang’s visits to Brazil, Chile, Columbia and Peru in May 2015 sought to further strengthen trade and commerce links with direct investment in Latin America set to reach $ 250 billion over the next decade.
Having eclipsed the United States as the top destination for South American exports, China is currently Latin America’s biggest annual creditor.5 The visit is but one, into a region that has come to rely heavily on China and is symptomatic of the influence that this once distant and relatively inward looking country has come to signify.
Chou Enlai succeeded in dispelling qualms and apprehensions that existed sixty years ago and thrust China into the global arena. Xi Jinping has marked the milestone with far reaching vision and cemented the position of China as a key leader, in world affairs. His initiatives in resurrecting the ancient Silk Road and thereby creating an ‘economic belt’ has widely enhanced the influence of China not only across the Asian region but beyond into Africa, the Middle East and Europe as investments are targeted in the areas of road, rail, port and pipelines across 65 countries.
Upon assuming chairmanship of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), President Xi stressed that ‘with our interests and security so closely intertwined, we will swim or sink together and we are increasingly becoming a community of common destiny.’6 The close affinity nurtured continuously through investment and commerce has benefited countries throughout the region.
A view of the statistics alone portend that in the next couple of years, China will see her imports reaching $ 10 trillion, outbound investment is expected to reach $ 500 billion and the number of outbound tourists is likely to exceed 400 million. As President Xi highlighted ‘the more China grows itself, the more development opportunities it will create for the rest of Asia and the world.’7
Auguring well for South-South cooperation, the fast changing tide sees China gradually assume a higher if not the highest role in the international hierarchy. As a new champion of smart power, the way Nye cast it, China has gone beyond the hard and soft versions. Possessing military prowess, economic and financial dexterity and venturing into a multitude of sectors and territories, China’s achievement needs to be understood in the Asian context, wherein the region as a whole may lay claim to the success of an Asian neighbour.
Fear – learning from the past, understanding more from the present
Economic security undoubtedly brings to fruition possible or comparable economic insecurity. The fear factors are enmeshed in the notion that over–reliance and interdependence could generate a mass downfall. Socio-economic problems form the foundation of such fears, fuelled most often by stupendous growth.
Poverty, the lack of economic growth, the persistent debt crisis, poor terms of trade and disadvantageous global competitiveness are but some of the ingredients stirring the cauldron of economic security as countries wage what is often perceived as an unwinnable war.
Furthermore, Jorge Nef rightly pointed out that ‘since 1961, the non-Western countries of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas have gone through at least three United Nations sponsored “development decades”. However, little development, let alone catching up, has taken place.’8
The question therefore arises as to why it wasn’t a success and why would this attempt be any different? It is in the question itself that the solution is found. The stronger the system, sturdier the ties and the firmer the network, the less likely countries are to fall prey to crises.
In the past decades, the imposition of a solution through a development agenda for a specified period remained just that – a solution for a specified period. In contrast the scenario today reveals a continuous collaboration through which countries have the option of partnering with each other in the common pursuit of sustainable development. It becomes tangible and the effects of development spill out into society, rather than remaining contained within economic statistics.
It is noteworthy that Chinese trade within Asia has increased from $ 800 billion to $ 3 trillion and trade with other regions has grown from $ 1.5 trillion to $ 4.8 trillion. China has become the largest trading partner, biggest export market and a major source of investment, and countries, especially those in the Asian region stand to gain – and gain immensely.
It is not a situation in which the poor are made richer by making the rich poorer, as warned against by Churchill. Instead the influx of investment, enhanced connectivity, the development of industry and infrastructure, guaranteed markets all indicate and lead towards sustainable economic growth.
Capturing such growth has failed thus far owing to it not reaching the grassroots and instead bopping on the surface of economies. The doom and gloom proclamations of such ventures from the past remain there, in the past. What is projected for the future is however economic growth that is intended to reach the periphery while strengthening the centre.
Concerns and the call for caution will exist, yet countries, as articulated by Noor, with regard to the foreign relations of Malaysia, would be wise to advocate pragmatism. This would be in the interest of all concerned.
Claiming that ‘rather than calibrated, cunning acumen, the foreign policy astuteness the country has demonstrated in the past has rather been the result of functional pragmatism sprinkled with a powdering of idealism’9 Noor reminds us of the beauty of simplicity, of understanding things for what they are, rather than what we perceive them to be.
This ‘powdering of idealism’ wouldn’t harm anyone. It highlights our realisation that countries in Europe, which although highly competitive, power driven and successful and said to be the very epitome of realism, have today joined together in the European Union, achieving a highly idealistic goal in their reliance on institutions and each other. Such co-existence, interdependence and strong links have avoided the outbreak of war, generated sustainable development and secured widespread prosperity for the region, although with a few exceptions.
The very ethos of Europe today is its reliance, voluntarily or not, on idealism. ASEAN is well on the way to emulating such an ethos, although the path to be progressed would need to be indigenous, encapsulating the ‘Asian-ness’ of the region and her policies, politics and people.
Partnering policy, progress and prosperity
Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson hide no inhibitions in discounting the aims and aspirations of countries, chief among which is China.
Arguing that ‘attempting to engineer prosperity without confronting the root cause of the problems – extractive institutions and the politics that keeps them in place – is unlikely to bear fruit’,10 they have, however, accepted that irrespective of the institutions and politics in place, prosperity can be harnessed, it can be transplanted and it can succeed. This flies in the face of ‘development decades’ that failed to achieve that which they were intended to.
Policy becomes highly relevant in this process of partnering. President Xi stressed that ‘as members of the same global village, we should foster a sense of community of common destiny, follow the trend of the times, keep to the right direction, stick together in time of difficulty and ensure that development in Asia and the rest of the world reaches new highs.’11 Setting and reaching common economic targets, whilst seen in formal regional bodies, would do well to be matched in relation to ties with China.
Addressing the Boao Forum in 2013, President Xi referred to the Chinese adage that a wise man changes as time and events change. He noted that countries ‘should abandon the outdated mindset, break away from the old confines that fetter development and unleash all the potential for development.’12
This he claimed could be achieved through a policy of peace, cooperation and openness. Peace, he noted, provided security as a safeguard for boosting common development whereby the international community advocated the vision of comprehensive security, common security and cooperative security turning ‘the global village into a big stage for common development, rather than an arena where gladiators fight each other.’13
Through cooperation, he called for an effective vehicle was created for enhancing common development through the enhancement of South-South cooperation and North-South dialogue, promotion of balanced development of the developing and developed countries and a consolidation of the foundation for sustaining stable growth of the global economy.
Whilst openness, he claimed ensured inclusivity, creating a broad space for enhancing common development through which countries respect the right of others to independently choose their social system and development path, remove distrust and misgivings and turn the diversity of the world and difference among countries into dynamism and driving force for development.
This multi-pronged strategy has been tried and tested. Viewed as a return to the basics, the adoption and implementation of such a policy of partnering across the region, laying aside scepticism and suspicion in the name of and for the promotion of economic security, would, it is argued provide for a win-win situation.
The path ahead for Asia, in perceived challenging times, would do well to be traversed upon the lines of regionalism. Interdependence and economic cooperation cannot be underestimated in the pursuit of development and prosperity and they need to be entrenched into systems of governance. Joint formulation of policy for the achievement of progress would augur well for Asia.
Such co-dependence isn’t and mustn’t be viewed as external interference or meddling and instead needs to be understood from economic terms. The resulting prospects would enhance domestic economies, boost national economies and strengthen international trade. The burgeoning of development, greater circulation of finance, provision of opportunities, improvement of economic statistics and the experience of actual improvement in the lives of Asians, needs to be tethered to China and her rapid progress.
The need arises for examination of whether a cohesive policy of planning has been considered, if China is an immense source of strength or an insurmountable threat, and whether economic security remains at the heart of the discourse in the region. It is evident that China has forwarded a comprehensive and clear strategy for partnering.
Attaching no strings, but instead underpinning the basic common factors of peace, cooperation and openness, China has proved to be an immense source of strength to Asia. In addition, economic security, which is undoubtedly at the heart of China’s policy, has been identified as a key concern in the context of security, a recognition that bodes well for the entire Asian region.
President Xi has had no qualms in stating that ‘China is an important member of the Asian family and the global family. China cannot develop itself in isolation from the rest of Asia and the world. On their part, the rest of Asia and the world cannot enjoy prosperity and stability without China.’14
China has accepted her role. The sooner she is viewed as a friend and is joined in the pursuit of development, the sooner Asia and in fact many other regions of the world, will gain economic strength and stability, and ensure much-needed economic security.
1 Mely Caballero-Anthony, ‘The Regionalization of Peace in Asia’, ed. Michael Pugh and Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu, The United Nations and Regional Security, Lynne Rienner, Colorado, 2003, p197.
2 Kahler, Miles - Economic Security in an era of Globalization: Definition and Provision, Luncheon Address – Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Singapore, 2003
3 Paul E. Sigmund, The Ideologies of Developing Countries, Praeger, London, 1963, pp54-55
4 Joseph Stiglitz – ‘In defence of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank’ - http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/apr/14/in-defence-of-the-asian-infrastructure-investment-bank\
8 Nef, Jorge – Human Security and Mutual Vulnerability - https://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/218/46609.html
9 Noor, Elina - Friends with Benefits: Why Malaysia can and will maintain good ties with both the United States and China - https://www.cigionline.org/blogs/asia-pacific-security/friends-benefits-why-malaysia-can-and-will-maintain -good-ties-both-unite
10 Acemoglu, Daron and Robinson, James A., Why Nations Fail, 2012, Crown Business New York, p 450