Asia's Achilles Heel

Earlier this month Chinese revelers welcomed the new lunar year with a few more candles than usual. The country was gripped by a crisis in electric power production that caused California-style blackouts across the central and southern parts of the country.  Power plants could not keep up with demand, especially because they didn't have enough coal on hand to burn.

The immediate causes of China's power crisis are straightforward. Snow storms disrupted the railroads that carry most coal to power plants. Record low temperatures also boosted demand for electricity and coal. But there was a deeper cause at work. China's free-market policies—the same ones that led to China's extraordinary growth in the past decade—have eroded the government's ability to control its economy. Economic activity, by design, is shifting away from state-owned enterprises and central planning. But Beijing doesn't have structures in place to control those aspects of the economy it doesn't own outright. Market reforms are making Beijing less and less relevant to what's really going on in the economy, threatening to turn China into a "weak state." And it's not just China—India, too, is having trouble regulating its industry and economy. The phenomenon is a dark cloud on the Asian century.

If this all sounds abstract, consider that China's blackouts were mainly a byproduct of the government's struggle to manage the planned and market-based parts of the economy side-by-side.   Today, the Chinese leadership is worrying about inflation, but they have few useful tools to slow the rise in prices. A few years ago, Beijing might have dampened industrial growth by closing the spigot of finance from state-owned banks. But many newly deregulated state enterprises, as well as new privately owned companies, have found other sources of capital, including caches of massive profits accumulated over the years. One of the few industries Beijing still controls is power—it owns nearly every aspect of the grid, from generators to distributors. So Beijing decided to try and quell inflation by lowering electricity prices.

The energy industry, however, is bigger than just power generation and distribution. It includes the coal industry, which has been the object of market reforms. Starting two years ago the country largely abandoned the traditional planning system for allocating and pricing coal, the main fuel for power generators and one of the power companies' largest costs. Suppliers and buyers were allowed to negotiate on their own terms. With demand for electricity skyrocketing, suppliers had the upper hand, and coal prices rose. With Beijing keeping prices artificially low, power plants could not pass these costs to the consumer. They responded by cutting back on coal orders. As coal inventories dwindled, power generators cut back on capacity, and the lights went out.

Beijing's lack of practical control over large swaths of industry explains an increasing number of China's woes. The environment is a case in point. The government has an elaborate apparatus for environmental regulation, with strict laws on the books, but it is unwilling to enforce the measures for fear of stepping on the toes of local authorities, who usually push industrial development at the expense of greenery. Changing that power structure will require politically dangerous rewiring of the ruling Communist Party's power base. To be sure, Beijing is still powerful in some areas such as Internet regulation. And its recent success in imposing safety standards to close dangerous small coal mines, another area where Beijing is flexing its muscle, probably inadvertently contributed to the current coal crisis. Overall, however, what's most striking is Beijing's inability to impose needed regulation nor to predict what will happen when it does regulate. For example, a keystone in the government's effort to avoid future energy crises is an aggressive plan to improve energy efficiency about 4 percent per year over the current decade. The actual effect of Beijing's efficiency policies is barely one third that level.

These are not passing problems. They reveal a deep weakness in China's administration because the government has been unable to replace its Soviet-style planning system with an alternative scheme that is better suited to a market economy. Like an American film on the Wild West, much of the economy is governed by central strictures that don't really have much impact.

India is also plagued by administrative weakness—and the problems are getting worse as the Indian economy takes off and government struggles to address the byproducts of rapid economic growth. Large pockets of the Indian power grid are unreliable because Indian policymakers tinker with electricity prices in an effort to deliver political favors. (Electricity supplied to most Indian farms costs almost nothing and in some parts of the country is actually free. India has many farmers and they vote; politicians court them with stunts like free power. Poor accounting systems allow others who steal power to blame the farmers.) That tinkering has put most Indian power utilities into bankruptcy. The problems would be even worse if most of the power sector were not actually owned by the central and state governments in India, which shuffle money around to keep the companies afloat. Unable to get reliable power that is essential to industrial production, most large power users build their own power supplies. By some estimates, one third of the country's power plants are of this "captive" variety—by design, disconnected from the government-controlled grid so they are more reliable and also immune from political meddling.

The rise of weak states on the world stage will affect every aspect of international relations. It could send globalization astray. It will be hard to realize the full benefits of trade, for example, if essential countries are unable to enforce safety standards and trade laws. Fixing these problems may require a new style of international diplomacy that relies less heavily on deals such as treaties with central governments. Instead, specific contracts might be written directly with the segments of society that are best administered and most able to change their behavior. Taming the volcanic growth in Chinese emissions of greenhouse gases, for example, may depend less on whatever deal is crafted with Beijing and more on specific commitments that the West can work out with bosses in the Chinese power sector. How can China be a "responsible stakeholder" in the world economy if it can't actually follow through with commitments it makes in the international arena?

As the pundits gaze at the coming Asian century, they have wondered how Asia's new powers will reshape the world. But the big challenge in the coming Asian century may not be these new countries' burgeoning strength but their weakness.

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