Top Stories from the Editorial/Opionion pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, May 23, 1997

Pacific Asia Has a Distance to Go Before It Leads the World

By Gerald Segal International Herald Tribune
HONG KONG - With Hong Kong in the last few weeks of British rule, there is a new mantra doing the rounds. It suggests that the handover to China symbolizes the baton passing from the Atlantic world to Pacific Asia.

 Yet it is far from clear that the baton will pass smoothly. And to whom will it pass, anyway?

 There can be little doubt that Pacific Asia is the most dynamic part of the global eco-nomy and is likely to retain that status for at least for the next five to 10 years. But who in the region is accruing the power that is supposed to follow sustained economic growth and rising prosperity? 

The answer used to be Japan. When it began taking a more active role in international economic institutions in the 1980s, it seemed obvious to have a Trilateral Commission or a Group of Seven industrialized nations with Japan as the Asian member. But since the Japanese economic bubble burst, it has become clear that Japan is merely a normal power with normal problems in sustaining growth in a postindustrial society.

 Now that China has grown faster than any country before, the talk is of the baton passing to China and ethnic Chinese in other countries in Pacific Asia - an extended Greater China. Yet the ethnic Chinese are far from monolithic, and China is a long way from being a Japan-like, status quo economic power committed to open multilateralism. That is why some people worry about an unregulated Chinese bull in the World Trade Organization shop.

 Neither is it clear how military power may be passing to Pacific Asia. The relative predominance of the United States in the region has increased since the end of the Cold War after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Only China seems capable of becoming a peer competitor.

 Yet as the revolution in military technology gathers pace, the gap between China and Western powers appears to be growing, not shrinking. If China does become a peer competitor of the United States, it will ensure that Pacific Asia divides into pro- and anti-Chinese camps.

 In political terms, the fading of the hype concerning Asian values suggests that Asians realize they have no inherently cultural answers to the problems of modernity. The rising crime and divorce rates that accompany the transition to the postindustrial world cannot be avoided in Pacific Asia, just as there seems to be an inevitable link between growing political liberalism and economic prosperity.

 Pacific Asia's ability to compete in a knowledge-based world would be more convincing if some countries in the region were faster at moving into the world of information technology and others were less inclined to try to regulate the media. So long as the key innovators and brokers of the software revolution continue to be born in the United States and Europe, it is hard to feel confident that Asians are rising to the challenge of mastering information technology.

 As new international arrangements are being made in this field, for example to agree on a system of Internet names and rules of the superhighway, Asian countries and companies are little more than bit players.

 Asians may complain that the Atlantic world has set the rules of the old international order, but when they have a chance to shape the new order, the people of Pacific Asia are nowhere to be seen. 

Will Asian countries complain in 10 years' time that the world of global information was shaped by Westerners without their consent? If so, they have only themselves to blame. To compete, they need liberal and open societies.

 Another major reason why Pacific Asia is unable to shape the new structures of global power is its failure to get organized. There is no equivalent in the region of the United States or the European Union that can speak for a strong, cohesive political bloc.

 Should China take charge, the region will be divided. Without China in charge, it will remain divided. So where does the baton fall after Hong Kong's handover?


The writer, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and director of Britain's Pacific Asia Program, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.