November 26, 2004

Crouching China, Hidden Hegemon

China's learning that you're never truly a hegemon until you've spread pop music to all corners of the earth:
Chinese pop music blares from loudspeakers, mixing with the cries of Chinese traders at a busy local market. Welcome to China? No, in fact, we are in Kazakhstan's commercial capital, Almaty, at the Ya-Lian bazaar.

It is a scene repeated at hundreds of Chinese markets across Central Asia. Initially, the traders were locals bringing in scarce goods from just across the border to sell. But in recent years, they have been replaced by an influx of Chinese tradesmen who have set up more permanent shops and become a fixture of Central Asian urban life.

This street activity is just one sign of China's growing presence in the region. But at higher levels, Chinese officials and business leaders have been crisscrossing the region, signing cooperation agreements and contracts that aim to expand Beijing's foothold.
The trend's easy to spot--China's aiming at regional dominance. At the moment, that's nothing too alarming here, all countries do it when they can. What's really worrisome is that the global "spheres of influence" are now being drawn so as to make a rivalry between spheres—especially American and Chinese spheres—all the more likely. You have the U.S., for instance, insisting on the pursuit of regional trade agreements like NAFTA or CAFTA, rather than truly global trade areas, and these tend to spur China and other Asian countries to set up their own regional trade blocs. Meanwhile, "international" organizations like the UN, G7, IMF, and the World Bank have shown no signs of offering the major Asian nations (China, India, S. Korea) better representation. As a result, there's talk in the air of those countries setting up their own IMF, their own World Bank, etc. At that point you have two distinct power blocs, and global integration gives way to global growling.

Some analysts have suggested that the natural rivalry between Japan and China (or between India and China) would preclude any sort of pan-Asian power bloc. Maybe. But, note, there are plenty of natural rivalries extant in the U.S.-Europe bloc, and they were all nicely subdued in the face of the Soviet threat. Given a credible "American threat," Asia could easily come in for a massive realignment, with China at the center. Hints are already there. Since 2002, foreign ministers Japan, China, and South Korea have been meeting at ASEAN conferences, and the prospects of wider "ASEAN + 3" bloc are certainly decent. If you look at the trade figures, Japan has increased its imports from China while decreasing its imports from America. Taiwan and South Korea have increased exports to China while holding exports to the U.S. flat. In absolute terms, America still dominates trade in this region, but the trends are moving against us.
-- Brad Plumer 4:56 PM || ||