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Asia Unbound

CFR experts give their take on the cutting-edge issues emerging in Asia today.

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China’s Olympic Debate

by Elizabeth C. Economy
China's Feng Zhe, the eventual gold medal winner, reacts after competing in the men's gymnastics parallel bars final during the London 2012 Olympic Games on August 7, 2012. China's Feng Zhe, the eventual gold medal winner, reacts after competing in the men's gymnastics parallel bars final during the London 2012 Olympic Games on August 7, 2012. (Brian Snyder / Courtesy Reuters)

The Chinese stand second in the Olympic medals table—both in gold and overall—but you would never know it from what’s going on in their media. Of course, there is celebration of the country’s athletes. Yet the flawless performances of the Chinese divers and spectacular achievements of the Chinese male gymnasts are in danger of being drowned out by a torrent of commentary focused on what the games mean for China as a society and for its place in the world.  Some of the commentary is lamenting, some angry, and still other searching.

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What Can the East Asia Summit Do for Northeast Asia?

by Scott A. Snyder
Leaders walk during dinner at the East Asia Summit gala dinner in Nusa Dua, Bali

Leaders walk during dinner at the East Asia Summit gala dinner in Nusa Dua, Bali November 18, 2011 (Beawiharta/Courtesy Reuters).

Although this weekend’s East Asia Summit (EAS) is the sixth in the series, it will be part of American awareness for the first time as a result of America’s decision to join the group (with Russia) and President Obama’s first-time participation. In some respects, it will be a new start for the organization. EAS priorities do appear to have been reshuffled as a result of American membership away from economics and toward three main issues that mesh well with American priorities: disaster relief, nonproliferation, and maritime security. While the United States has reportedly been careful not to usurp leadership within the EAS, ASEAN thus far seems very responsive to American priorities. However, Korea University’s Lee Shin-wha argues in this month’s Korea Update essay that there is a deep disconnect between East Asian summitry and Northeast Asian security needs that is likely to remain. The sixth EAS may feel like a new start, but there is a long way to go in establishing effective regional-based solutions to acute and longstanding security problems such as the standoff on the Korean peninsula. Read more »

Obama to Asia: It’s Our Party

by Elizabeth C. Economy
World leaders arrive to take family photo at the APEC Summit in Honolulu, Hawaii on November 13, 2011.

World leaders arrive to take family photo at the APEC Summit in Honolulu, Hawaii on November 13, 2011. (Larry Downing / Courtesy of Reuters)

President Obama is having a good week. He held court in Hawaii at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, pushed through a reduction on tariffs for environmental goods, and gained steam on what has become his signature regional free trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), with interest from Japan, Canada, and Mexico. On to Australia, President Obama and Prime Minister Gillard agreed to enhance joint military training and provide the United States with access to Australian bases. Score two for the president. His last stop will be Bali for the East Asian Summit. For a home run, the president need only let Washington’s allies take the lead in setting the agenda—thereby allaying quietly-voiced concerns among some of the smaller Asian nations that the United States would try to control the agenda—and reaffirm the willingness of the United States to support its partners’ interests.

For many observers, President Obama’s trip represents a “return to Asia.” The truth is that the United States never left Asia; it was just focused elsewhere in the region. Mostly, Washington was busy banging its head against the wall trying to find ways to work constructively with China (translation: get the Chinese to change their economic, political, and security policies) and to persuade North Korea to step back from the nuclear brink. Suffice it to say that neither effort yielded a significant return. The president and his team have now realized that it is much more substantively productive and politically profitable to spend time with people whose overall political values, economic practices, and strategic interests are generally aligned with those of the United States—namely all the important players in the region except for China.

Beijing’s reaction to President Obama’s initiatives in the region, unsurprisingly, has been one of deep unhappiness. Read more »

The United States in the New Asia … Revisited

by Evan A. Feigenbaum

For the next several days, President Obama is hosting leaders from around the Asia-Pacific region in Hawaii for the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. So this seemed like a good time to repost a Council on Foreign Relations special report on Asian regionalism that I co-wrote with my colleague, Bob Manning, in the run up to the 2009 meeting.

Our report, The United States in the New Asia, is two years old. But in my view, it’s still deeply relevant.

You can download the report here.

Some good things have happened since we wrote our paper in 2009. For one, the United States has joined the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, and that is a decidedly good thing. There isn’t likely to be a successful Doha Round nor is another global trade round likely anytime soon. So TPP can fill in some of the gaps between global trade liberalization and bilateral and regional agreements. The United States has also—finally—completed the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS).

And yet the larger questions Bob and I raised about the United States and Asian regionalism remain important and mostly unanswered.

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China Games the G20, but to What End?

by Elizabeth C. Economy
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy welcomes China's President Hu Jintao at the G20 venue where world leaders gather in Cannes on November 2, 2011.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy welcomes China's President Hu Jintao at the G20 venue where world leaders gather in Cannes on November 2, 2011. (Yves Herman / Courtesy of Reuters)

One of the big stories playing out at the G20 in Cannes is “will it or won’t it?” Namely, will China meet the European request to help bailout the euro to the tune of $140 billion or will it take a pass? While China holds out on its answer—either for maximal political advantage or because it really isn’t sure what it wants to do—the drama is mounting.

Analysts and the media are consumed with the prospect of what China will ask for in return—if it decides to help.  Will China be able to parlay its economic support into some political concessions? Some observers have suggested that European leaders will back down on visits with the Dalai Lama—always a sticking point with the Chinese—or not pressing the Chinese on human rights. An editorial in China’s nationalist Global Times argues that, in return for China’s cash, the EU should further open their markets to China and finally admit that it is a market economy. Maybe it will be as straightforward as the G20 not issuing a joint leader statement singling out China as needing more flexibility in its currency to help ease global trade and investment balances, as a draft statement indicated. While the latter might be a feasible trade-off, a simple look at the realities of democratic politics in Europe provides the answer to the issue of a broader quid pro quo. Read more »

China’s Influence: Waxing or Waning?

by Elizabeth C. Economy
China's President Hu Jintao shows the way to South Africa's President Jacob Zuma during a welcome ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on August 24, 2010.

China's President Hu Jintao shows the way to South Africa's President Jacob Zuma during a welcome ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on August 24, 2010. (Jason Lee / Courtesy of Reuters)

One of the significant unresolved questions surrounding Chinese foreign policy is whether China’s influence is expanding or diminishing. Is China a model for other countries? Does its economic clout give it sway in other arenas? Does its growing military prowess have the potential to bend others to its will?

In the past two weeks, China’s influence barometer has been fluctuating wildly. In Zambia, Presidential candidate Michael Sata campaigned largely on an anti-China platform, proclaiming “Zambia has become a province of China…the Chinese are the most unpopular people in the country because no one trusts them,” and won. Closer to home, Burma threw a wrench in China’s plans to populate the Irrawaddy with seven more dams, including the 6,000 megawatt Myitsone dam, when Burmese President Thein Sein announced the suspension of the dam until his term ends in April 2016. The dam would have flooded an area roughly the size of Singapore and provided energy primarily for China. The Chinese government was stunned at Burma’s betrayal. And of course, throughout much of Asia, China’s neighbors are forging new alliances and fortifying old ones to defend against a seemingly more assertive China. (That certainly sounds like influence…just not the kind Beijing wants to have.)

At the same time, the South African government led by President Zuma failed to provide the Dalai Lama with a visa to attend the 80th birthday party of his fellow Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, prompting an angry outcry from the Archbishop. In addition, my colleague Josh Kurlantzick has suggested that China’s influence in central and parts of Southeast Asia is expanding through Beijing’s programs to manage social instability. Although given the significant annual increases in numbers of protests in China, it’s not clear to me what they are teaching, exactly; and given the already authoritarian predilections of these states, China’s influence, while not negligible, is not terribly surprising. Finally, opening the newspaper on any given day, it is easy to get the impression that without Chinese investment, the entire world economy would be down under.

So, is China’s influence waxing or waning? The answer is that it depends. Read more »

Does U.S.-China Strategic Cooperation Have To Be So Hard?

by Evan A. Feigenbaum
Former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger delivers a speech in front of a picture of late U.S. president Richard Nixon meeting with late premier Zhou Enlai during a ceremony in Shanghai to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the "Shanghai Communique," on April 15, 2002. (China Photo / Courtesy of Reuters)

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger delivers a speech in front of a picture of late U.S. President Richard Nixon meeting with late Premier Zhou Enlai during a ceremony in Shanghai to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the "Shanghai Communique." (China Photo/Courtesy Reuters)

Can the United States and China cooperate to forestall threats to stability? A new CFR report, Managing Instability on China’s Periphery, asks this question in the context of fragile states and regions that share borders with China—specifically North Korea, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Central Asia. I participated in the project, which included workshops with Chinese specialists assembled by Peking University. I also wrote the report’s chapter on Central Asia.

The project is interesting because the U.S. and China actually have a long history of cooperating in places along China’s border. Just take recent tensions over Afghanistan, for example. These strains belie the degree to which Beijing and Washington worked jointly to defeat the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Washington encouraged Chinese support for the Afghan mujahideen, and the two countries cooperated in other unprecedented ways during the conflict.

But that was then.

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Is It Time for America to Harden Its Asian Alliances?

by Elizabeth C. Economy
Chinese fighter jets take part in an international fleet review to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army Navy in Qingdao, Shandong province on April 23, 2009.

Chinese fighter jets take part in an international fleet review to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army Navy in Qingdao, Shandong province on April 23, 2009. (Guang Niu/Courtesy of Reuters)

Anyone who needs convincing that China’s military trajectory is cause for alarm should take a look at “Asian Alliances in the 21st Century,” a new report co-authored by several well-known Asia security experts, including Dan Blumenthal, Randall Schriver, Mark Stokes, L.C. Russell Hsiao and Michael Mazza. The report details the rapid modernization of China’s military capabilities and claims that Beijing is interested neither in benign hegemonic rule nor in helping Washington address global challenges. Rather, China’s leaders are ultimately concerned only with maintaining their power and expanding their maritime reach.

The thrust of the report has merit. China’s assertiveness in the East and South China Seas, as well as its increasingly unattractive foreign policy rhetoric, gives significant reason for concern and little reason for optimism about China’s real interest in strengthening regional security cooperation in the near term.

There are no shades of gray in the report, however, and the lack of nuance can be disconcerting. Oddly enough, it may even lead the authors to be a bit too optimistic. In the “what do we do about it” section, for example, the report calls for a far more deeply integrated U.S.-led alliance system in Asia.  This proposal, however, raises a few additional issues that the report does not fully address. Read more »

China’s Great Rebalancing Act

by Evan A. Feigenbaum

A resident cycles past the Wumen Gate of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Reuters/Jason Lee.

As Vice President Biden meets with Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders this week, his number one economic talking point is almost certain to be about “rebalancing.”  Nearly all of Washington’s principal economic concerns, from currency valuation to Chinese industrial policy, touch this central issue.  But, quite frankly, rebalancing is not just an American goal.  It is, too, a Chinese objective because Beijing’s existing growth model—predicated on the two pillars of exports and capital-intensive investment—is delivering diminishing returns, and China’s savvy leaders know it.

A major new report from Eurasia Group, China Great Rebalancing Act, explains why.

First, a little truth in advertising:  I’m the head of the Asia practice group at Eurasia Group, so I helped write the report.  But our team’s report is well worth reading because it provides a very comprehensive overview of the forces and dynamics shaping the future of China’s political economy.

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