Thursday, May 19, 2005

China, India and Japan

It is a commonly bandied-about notion that China is set to become the next super-power. Considering its current human rights record, form of government and baffling attitude towards Taiwan (don't they have enough land and people?), this idea, which I actually find rather implausible, strikes fear into my heart. It is however amusing to see sundry anti-Americans and assorted pundits expectantly banking on this (for the moment) hair-raising outcome. Not that I have anything at all against China - on the contrary it is a very fascinating country. But, how shall I put this, I think it needs to take enormous steps practically, and radically transform its culture and mentality, before it will be willing and able to act as a world leader.
At any rate, I will go out on a limb: I think it unlikely that China will become a world, or even regional power anytime soon. There are several reasons for this.
China is not a democracy. Taking the example of the Soviet Union one would think that this should not be a problem. However there is reason to argue otherwise. The world has changed: while in Soviet times it was relatively easy to block information and maintain the illusion that elsewhere in the world there was less liberty and prosperity, this will be much harder now, with democracy slowly spreading to an ever higher number of states, and with communication facilitated by the technological revolution. Furthermore, it is partially because of the very strong growth of the Chinese economy that the people living under the current regime have tolerated their lack of freedom. When this growth falters, as it inevitably will, it is easy to conceive that severe political unrest will ensue and this, I think, will put a damper on, if not forcefully set-back, any global ambitions that China may have for quite some time.
Additionally, there are other countries that are better placed to become at least regional powers in the Asian realm: India and Japan.
India has economic growth comparable to China's and at the same time is a mature and stable democracy (with several peaceful and orderly transfers of power under its belt). This will allow it to avoid disruptive and distracting political unrest on its journey to becoming a developed economy. Additionally, being a member of the Anglosphere also gives it very strong advantages. Its closer interaction with the US and UK, the young people that go abroad to get a first-class education and then go back and the gradual improvement of its infrastructure and institutions are all setting the stage for regional leadership.
Japan on the other hand is already a developed economy. However it is rarely spoken of as a big player in the security sense because of its constitutional limits to military action. This should not be taken too seriously. If it wanted to, Japan has the economic strength and technological development to become a nuclear power without much effort. If it hasn't done so until now it is by choice and if provoked or encouraged sufficiently it will presumably choose to make its presence felt. Japan's pacifism, particularly in view of what happened during World War Two is actually very encouraging. However, in this day and age, pacifism with a bite on the part of a, by now, Westernized democracy, is even more useful and reassuring.
Given these trends and conditions, I am, for the moment confident that these predicted geo-political trasformations will be slower than most people think (don't say goodbye to US power yet) and will play out in unexpected directions, particularly given the increasingly positive India-Japan relationship.
For an interesting blog which focuses on these issues see By Dawn's Early Light, from which a few of my ideas are taken. Here is a digest of his posts on China and India.

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