Top Stories from the Editorial/Opionion pages of the International
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
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
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
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.