Prestowitz

Is Beijing in control?

Amid all the usual speeches about the wonders of free trade and America’s future being determined in Asia that marked last week’s kickoff of the APEC  Leaders Meeting in Honolulu, two sets of remarks were especially noteworthy and thought provoking. Because he is inevitably over-shadowed by his famous father — Lee Kuan Yew — and ...

RICHARD A. BROOKS/AFP/Getty Images
RICHARD A. BROOKS/AFP/Getty Images

Amid all the usual speeches about the wonders of free trade and America’s future being determined in Asia that marked last week’s kickoff of the APEC  Leaders Meeting in Honolulu, two sets of remarks were especially noteworthy and thought provoking.

Because he is inevitably over-shadowed by his famous father — Lee Kuan Yew — and is the prime minister only of a medium sized city-state of four million inhabitants, Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong is not widely known and often ignored. But his is one of the quickest, most insightful, and balanced minds at work on the world stage today. I always find him both entertaining and well worth listening to.

For example, during Friday’s gathering, he was asked if he believes Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s insistent comments that America is going to focus like a laser on Asia and make stronger relations there its top priority. Lee responded that he believes she intends to do so, but then also noted that the United States is a hyperpower with interests everywhere that may distract it from time to time. YES. Of course. Is Asia really more important to the United States right now than the crisis of the euro and the EU? Of course, Lee didn’t say that, but the fact that this quintessentially Asia-Pacific meeting spent most of its time talking about Europe made the point obvious. That shows you how discerning and diplomatic Lee can be all at the same time.

But the comments that really caught my attention dealt with the respective roles in the region of China and the United States. Lee noted that China has had great success in achieving a sustained high rate of economic growth. But then he said, that with the unbalanced global economic situation requiring rebalancing and major shifts away from traditional policies and practices, it is unclear if China knows how to move forward from here. In particular, he made the intriguing comment that if China’s leaders lose control, they will be in deep trouble.

Think about that for a moment. It implicitly suggests the real possibility of China’s leaders actually losing control. It would have been understandable if he had spoken of the risk of Greek or Italian leaders losing control. But he didn’t nor did anyone else. Indeed, it was assumed that even in their present dire straits, the Italians and Greeks would find new leaders and form new governments that would remain in control of their countries. So the suggestion by a knowledgeable observer of a risk of Chinese leaders losing control, should attract attention. Maybe China is not as safe a bet as many investors and economic analysts have been thinking.

Lee continued that the Chinese have studied carefully how Japan became unstuck in the 1930s and chose a path that led to war. They know, he said, that they shouldn’t go in that direction. But, he added, whether the new generation (of Chinese) understands that is still to be seen.

Then in an interesting sleight of tongue, he noted that the United States has learned how to be both present and welcome in many regions of the world over long periods of time. "If China can do the same, it will be well," he concluded.

Do you think Singapore is a bit nervous about China?

Well, the second set of remarks by Hillary Clinton was directed at calming any frayed Asian nerves. America, she emphasized again and again, is not going to abandon the region. Indeed, she stressed that "what will happen in Asia in the years ahead will have an enormous impact on our nation’s future, and we cannot afford to sit on the sidelines and leave it to others to determine our future for us."

"We have to remove (economic) barriers, both at borders and behind borders, barriers like corruption, theft of intellectual property, and practices that distort fair competition."

So there was Clinton’s response to Lee’s not so subtle call for support. I only wonder if Lee will want to be more careful in the future about what he wishes for. I know from long experience in the trenches of the free trade and globalization battles that what Clinton is really saying is that China and the rest of Asia have to become more like the U.S. This is a hard sell. In fact, it hasn’t sold yet anywhere in Asia. Trying to make China into a copy of the United States not only isn’t going to work, it’s going to give rise to additional conflict that might force leaders like Lee into the uncomfortable position of having to choose sides.

I first came here to Honolulu almost exactly forty eight years ago to study Asia at the East-West Center, an institution dedicated to bridging the chasm between Asia and America. Based on what I’ve heard so far at this APEC meeting, I’d say the Center still has a lot of work to do.

 Twitter: @clydeprestowitz

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