China Rising, and Rising, and Rising

I'm still here in Hawaii for one more day, hearing Asian economic experts talk about the impact of the financial crisis on the region. To me, one really interesting fallout of the crisis is how quickly the Chinese are turning their relative economic power into political power. They are wearing the mantle of regional clout much more comfortably than the Japanese, who still have the world's second largest economy, ever did.

Why is this? Certainly, Japanese ambitions were somewhat constrained by the fallout of WW II, and the continued suspicions around any Japanese attempts to exert too much power in the region. But the fact is that the Chinese see their increased clout in the world as inevitable, a return to their normal Imperial position, rather than some sort of abberation. They have a confidence, even at this early point in their development, that the Japanese still don't have.

You can see this playing out in all sorts of ways, from the French president Sarkozy changing his tune on Tibet, to neighbors like Vietnam, Taiwan, etc. bolstering economic and diplomatic ties (more often than not, Beijing is now the first diplomatic stop for any new leader in the region). This is true even for other economically important countries like South Korea. China recently eclipsed the U.S. as that country's major trading partner.

China is stepping into its new role with aplomb, playing a key role in the G20, taking part in globally strategic events like the anti-piracy exercises off Somalia, and throwing off the old conventional wisdom that's its better for China to mind its own affairs and let the rest of the world take care of theirs. As Wen Jiabo said at Davos this year, "I firmly believe that running our own affairs well is the biggest contribution to entire mankind."

On balance, I think China's new position is going to be good news for the global economy, which desperately needs growth engines aside from the US. But it could lead to conflict, too. Yesterday, I attended a briefing at Pacific Command, where I saw a map of what the U.S. military views as its most likely future conflicts in the Asia-Pacific region. Half of them involved natural resource squabbles with China.