At New America Foundation today, Minxin Pei and Andres Martinez pursued the question of whether Asia is really on the rise. Pei was nominally the skeptic, while Martinez was cast as the proponent of the idea, though opinions were not that stark.
Pei suggested that there will not be an “Asian century” in the same way that the 20th century was the American century: Asia will lack the capabilities and skills to remake the world in the way the United States did. Moreover, the region is too divided, and intraregional rivalries will cancel the individual powers out, for no net effect.
Martinez agreed that, in the short term, the narrative of American decline due to the financial crisis was overblown. He emphasized that the US and China are now in a position of mutual dependence, a relationship could actually help the US perpetuate the American century. He does not see any innovative ideological worldview motivating China: no great ideological challenge is coming out of Asia.
Japan does not want to be second to China in Asia, Pei noted.
Continued growth in the 7-9% range should not be assumed, Pei asserted, given the challenges countries face in as little as 10-15 years. He suggested that Asia lacks an ecosystem for innovation, and that such a system is obstructed by the entire Asian “way of life.”
China’s domestic evolution
China will become a democracy at some point, Pei said. It will come from the top down, when members of the political elite choose to use popular discontent to further their personal goals. This could actually undercut its economic performance, he added.
He said that the Communist Party has successfully whitewashed history, and Chinese know little of the repressions from the 1950s to Tiananmen. As a result, the Party’s legitimacy could be threatened when it all comes out, as happened to the Party in Russia during glasnost.
Martinez forecast that, if economic growth falters, the Party would need an alternative rationale for its continued dominance, and might turn to nationalism, for instance on the Taiwan issue. He noted that even young, educated, cosmopolitan Chinese are in full agreement with the government on nationalistic issues such as Tibet and Taiwan.
Pei said that the financial crisis has not disillusioned Chinese about Western capitalism, but it has provided an “aha” moment, as they have watched the US make serious mistakes.
The discussion is at the NAF site on video.
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