The just-concluded APEC leaders’ summit in Lima, Peru, was very much the affair of one giant, Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), leaving pretty much everybody else to vie for a rare spot in the light.
China’s shadow was especially long this time around as everybody either waited to see what contributions it would make to reviving the slumping global economy or sought to ink various trade or military agreements with it.
Such attention did not go unnoticed, prompting fears among other powers that China may be gaining too much of an advantage and too quickly filling a vacuum in places like South America for their comfort. As the world’s second-biggest economy and a contender for leadership in Asia, Tokyo has been especially sensitive to Beijing’s opportunism, with fears that China’s GDP could surpass Japan’s within as little as 15 years.
Although China has also suffered from the global economic downturn, there is a universal expectation that it is somehow better equipped to deal with the situation, or at least that it can provide harder-hit economies with precious lifelines. More than just its economic clout, however, what has compelled world leaders to turn to China — or to sing in Chinese, as Cuban President Raul Castro did during Hu’s visit to Havana ahead of the summit — is Beijing’s political consistency.
In the churning seas of economic uncertainty, people’s reaction is to seek symbols of stability. With its tight grip on critical sectors of the economy and even more pervasive control over politics, Beijing provides that coveted stability. As a result, countries will be tempted to ignore authoritarian excesses, reports of systematic torture, or findings that Beijing is intensifying its electronic warfare efforts, for a chance to strike deals with it. In the eyes of the world, Beijing’s non-democratic system is nothing to be feared or criticized. It is, rather, an advantage.
Here again, Japan serves as the perfect contrast. As the world’s No. 2 economy, Japan would be the next logical option for countries seeking investment or free-trade pacts such as the one China signed with Peru last week. The main difference, however, is that while China provides a sense of continuity, democracies like Japan are hampered by uncertainty: While Hu was feted and made deals, Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso was beleaguered by domestic problems, battling an opposition that is stalling legislation in parliament and calling for snap elections. While Hu did not have to worry about public opinion or electoral challenges, Aso’s every move at the summit was seen as a test of whether he can boost his support as the country prepares for general elections by next September.
It is this uneven playing field — a democracy, with all its systemic red tape and friction, and an authoritarian regime — competing for leadership that prompted Yoshinobu Yamamoto, professor of international politics at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, to say: “China is picking up momentum in terms of diplomacy [while] Japan has been stalled [and] may not be able to return to a competitive position in the race for Asian supremacy.”
Beijing is fully aware of the great opportunities the global financial downturn has created for it. If it ever needed confirmation that the world would be willing to put on blinders to do business with it and that it need not worry about having to mend its ways to meet standards of global citizenship, that confirmation was provided by the manner in which world leaders bent over backwards for a chance to shake Hu’s hand.
In a moment of weakness, it may be tempting to seek China’s help. But the long-term consequences for democracy could be serious.
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