Opinion

The Great Debate

Obama: Going ‘all in’ for the Asian Century

The reaction in Asia to the dominance of U.S. power is only surpassed by a fear that the United States is in retreat.

As President Barack Obama traveled to Asia Tuesday for a four-country trip, this fear should be foremost on his mind. What many of Asia’s political and cultural leaders  fear most, however, is the United States retreating inward while distracted by crisis after crisis — from Libya to Syria to Crimea. With China on the brink of becoming the world’s largest economy and the geopolitical puzzle pieces of the China seas seemingly in renegotiation, the Eastern world is asking where Washington stands. This is Obama’s moment to demonstrate the components of his much-heralded, but still largely  undefined, tilt to Asia.

The stakes for Obama’s legacy as a world leader — and for the U.S. position as a Pacific power — could not be higher. The president was right to signal a “tilt” in U.S. policy toward Asia. He now has an important opportunity to carry the Asia pivot through to a conclusion.

Though many U.S. allies wring their hands about the prospect of Washington moving toward Asia and, they fear, away from Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, virtually all nations have been busy “rebalancing” their foreign policy and trade agendas toward Asia.

This does not reflect ideological or geographic preference, but reality. The Western economic powers — including the United States — have been precariously slow to recognize Asia’s rise as not only the new engine of the global economy but also as a potential source of challenge and conflict.

What Beijing can learn from Wal-Mart

“So, how?”

The question, short for “So, how do you want to handle this?” is a common, subtle way to invite someone to offer you a bribe in Asia. A traffic cop pulls you over for running a yellow light. He’s at your passenger window, a leather strap covering his name tag. He tells you to follow him to the police station so he can process your $100 fine. “So, how?”

If you slip 10 dollars into his ticket book — 20 dollars if you’re a foreigner — he’ll close it, and you’ll both be on your way.

It’s small scale — not like the graft that accompanied China’s high-speed rail system — but it happens all the time in Asia’s developing countries: in traffic, at customs offices, while getting and keeping licenses of all sorts. Nowhere is the bribery problem more severe, and more relevant to the rest of the world, than in China. Three years ago, China’s central bank reported that up to 18,000 officials have fled the country since the 1990s, taking some RMB 800 billion ($128 billion) with them. China lost almost $3 trillion in illicit financial outflows — crooked officials and businesspeople moving their dirty money out of the country — between 2000 and 2009, according to estimates by Global Financial Integrity, a Washington, D.C. financial watchdog. Because China is the world’s largest exporter, bribery in manufacturing and food production — and the related quality control issues — is a global problem.

Putin’s new ‘values pact’

Now that Russia President Vladimir Putin has swallowed Crimea, the question becomes: What if the peninsula doesn’t satisfy his appetite for new Russian territory? What if the only thing that will satiate his hunger for power is the goulash known as eastern Ukraine? Or does he then move on to Moldova, and then on and on?

Indeed, while the world watched the protests in Kiev and the Sochi Olympics last month, the Moldovan territory of Gagauzia quietly held a referendum about whether or not to join Russia if the rest of the country opts for stronger ties to the European Union. Its citizens, just like those in Crimea, have argued that they would be economically better off on Putin’s planet, rather than as meager satellites in the Western solar system.

The prospect of joining Russia, of course, sounds far better on paper than in reality. The promise of benefits is likely to evaporate when robust Western sanctions throw Russia’s economy into a steeper downturn. The ruble has already lost almost 9 percent of its value this year against the dollar. Many have argued (myself included) that very soon Putin won’t be able to survive the international blowback.

from Anatole Kaletsky:

The case against a Chinese financial crisis

A severe slowdown in China is viewed as among the greatest risks facing the world economy this year, and Thursday’s dismal news on Chinese manufacturing output exacerbated these fears. But the really important news from Beijing pointed in the opposite direction: Bank lending in China, instead of slowing dramatically as many economists had expected, accelerated in January to its fastest growth in four years.

This means China is unlikely to act as a brake on the global economy in the months ahead -- despite the recent weak manufacturing figures. It also suggests that predictions of a credit crunch or financial crisis in China will likely prove wrong -- or at least premature.

To welcome stronger bank lending in China is not to deny that credit growing at double the gross domestic product growth is unsustainable and will ultimately have to be curbed. The Chinese authorities themselves clearly believe this. The government and the central bank want to reduce credit growth and to replace the unregulated, opaque “shadow lending” system with properly supervised, well-capitalized modern banks.

Where does Britain stand in the global economic race?

Following the international financial crisis of the late 2000s, the world’s financial leaders have been working towards a standardized banking system that will strengthen banks at an individual level, and thus improve the banking sector’s ability to survive stress when it occurs.

In 2010 the Basel Committee produced a third accord outlining a set of regulations, with the goal of solving the banking system’s ongoing problems. Since then the conversation has yet to cease over whether enough has been done, since the peak of the crisis in 2008, to ensure a stable financial environment that supports growth on an international scale.

The importance of Basel III lies not only on an inter-continental scale, but for individual countries to maintain the required standard regulations to a point of sustainability. In Europe, the debate over the role Britain will play in Basel III has yet to be resolved. During early Basel III discussions in May 2012, Michel Barnier, the French European commissioner for financial regulation, clashed with British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne over the suggestion of higher leverage ratios in the UK, stating that a distortion of competition within the EU had the potential to cause a continental disadvantage.

China’s air defense zone: The shape of things to come?

China’s announcement of an air defense identification zone (AIDZ) that covers substantial portions of the East China Sea has unleashed a storm of concern among China’s neighbors — as well as in the United States.

For China’s action reflects the deeper challenge now posed by its growing military capability and international activism. Vice President Joe Biden was on solid ground when he objected strenuously to this new air defense zone during his recent trip to the region.

Washington and Beijing each insists it wants to build a “new kind of major power relationship.” If they are to succeed, however, and enhance peace and stability across the region, they must develop new strategies to manage their growing tensions.

Human Rights Day: Still pursuing religious freedom

December 10 marks Human Rights Day, the 65th anniversary of the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), signed by 48 nations — with just eight abstentions.

Sixty-five years ago, naysayers insisted it was nobody else’s business how governments behaved within their borders. The declaration confronted this cynical view — and continues to do so today. Human rights abuses and their consequences spill beyond national borders, darkening prospects for harmony and stability across the globe. Freedom of religion or belief, as well as other human rights, are essential to peace and security. They are everyone’s business.

Each signatory nation pledged to honor and protect these rights. For example, the declaration provides the foundation for much of the agenda of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, on which we serve.

A shifting global economy brings Australia to a crossroads

Australia is no longer immune to the stagnation in the West. Despite a resilient housing market, Australia’s economy is slowing. With a worsening labor market, consumption is eroding, along with business confidence.

In the past two years, the benchmark interest rate has been almost halved to 2.5 percent. Still, Australia’s real GDP growth is likely to decrease to 2.4 percent during the ongoing year and will remain barely 2 percent until the mid-2010s.

Australia is at a new crossroads.

In the past decade or so, exported commodities fueled Australia’s terms of trade, thanks to rising commodity prices. While agriculture and natural resources each account for barely 3-5 percent of GDP respectively, they contribute substantially to export performance. True, the service sector of the economy, including tourism, education, and financial services, continues to account for some 70 percent of GDP. However, the country’s abundant and diverse natural resources attract substantial foreign investment.

Looking to diplomacy with Iran

President Barack Obama has decided to test whether Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s “charm offensive” is a legitimate effort to reach an agreement on a more constricted and transparent Iranian nuclear program. With this decision, he embarks on the most transformative and important diplomatic initiative of his presidency.

The closest historical analogy is President Richard M. Nixon’s opening to China in 1971. Nixon had recognized a major adversary’s new willingness to change course and he seized the opportunity to further vital U.S. national security interests.

This China analogy, however, has some flaws. Most important, Nixon and his national security adviser Henry A. Kissinger began their quest in secrecy to avoid a divisive public debate that could have scuttled the initiative. Obama’s public commitment to test an opening to Iran, though, will be subjected to fierce scrutiny by domestic and foreign opponents.

Amid environmental destruction, China is battling to protect wildlife

Recently my family and I went through photos we had taken in Scotland. These images brought back memories of my fascination with the pristine Scottish natural environment. There are the breathtaking highlands, the sparkling lochs, the magnificent glens and the abundant wildlife. All these reminded me of Liaoning, my home province.

I spent my childhood in Liaoning in northeast China. It resembles Scotland in many ways. It is a vast landscape with spectacular mountains and rivers. Equally well-known is its abundant wildlife. Roe deer and hares are a common sight. Unfortunately, in recent years some wild animals have become a rarity, in some areas, due to overdevelopment and depletion of natural resources.

However, when I was on home leave back in Liaoning earlier this month I was delighted, and greatly encouraged, by the vigorous efforts of local government and people to create a sustainable environment.

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