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Does Google-China spat signal reboot in East-West relations?

Updated On: Jan 23, 2010

by Simon Tay
TODAY Weekend 23-24 Jan 2010

My last column contrasted the mood in the United States and China entering 2010. Economic doubt and new security scares have rebounded on the Obama administration, whose popularity has ebbed. Meanwhile, China continues to grow and gain in confidence. A new balance is emerging from the crisis.

Some, like Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, see this playing out over the long term. On many fronts, the Chinese will take many decades to truly challenge the US. But the crisis is hastening this shift in power and there are already signs of a changing mood.

In this context, the recent Google controversy with China is more than another complaint by a corporation. A lot of the Chinese responses have been nationalistic, insisting that the US Web giant should not flout the rules of the host country. This evokes an old sympathy where giant multinationals bully poor developing countries.

But outside of the mainland, most people do not see it that way. Instead, there is more sympathy for Google than might have been expected.

Despite the prevailing liberal view about the Internet, Google was not doctrinal in dealing with Beijing. Google, already making money and gaining market share in China, had taken steps to accommodate the authorities' concerns. This was not a case of flouting existing and agreed rules.

It is instead China that is changing the rules to tighten controls. Already with an estimated 30,000 Internet "police", Beijing seems intent to move further away from liberalisation. This signals an attitude that has implications for many issues beyond Internet freedom.

Among those who have watched the country's rise, the common hope is that China would gradually reform to accept international norms. Notwithstanding the fact that the existing system and rules have been shaped by the US and the West, the expectation has been for China to be a stakeholder. From this perspective, rather than breaking rules or seeking to dominate, China would emerge to be cooperative and co-equal with other major powers.

The American billionaire and philosopher, Mr George Soros, has been one of those who hoped China would reform progressively. In looking at the country's progress and especially the way Beijing responded to the crisis, Mr Soros dubbed this "state capitalism". Yet while effective in the short term, state capitalism also poses dangers as there is little check or balance to the power of the state.

Thus, the hope that China would reform in the medium and longer term; if not to become a liberal democracy than at least to be softer and more accountable in exercising power.

The conflict with Google seems to upend such hopes for a reformed, softer China. There are other signals that China will go its own way.

A recent bestseller among the Chinese is a book called China's Not Happy. The book criticises American domination and suggests that China is now ready to take over and lead the world.

Neither the Chinese leaders nor the official media has endorsed the book. But it is a bestseller and has been taken seriously. It may represent a new post-crisis mood among the people.

There is good reason to take pride in how the country has ridden out the financial crisis. But there are dangers that this pride might be swelling to an ugly hubris. If so, we must expect a strong and even strident sense of nationalism from China.

The country may be both powerful, but it is also prickly over what it sees as its critical interests. This could be over its actions in Tibet and the Uighur minority or in territorial disputes, whether in the mountains with India or in the South China Sea with various claimants.

This has implications not just for Google and the US. If its character evolves in this way, fellow Asians too may have to look again at China.

The China that emerged from the early '90s and in the last Asian crisis has been welcome as a partner and even friend. The Asean-China free trade agreement is not only an economic treaty but a marker of a close, win-win relationship.

From the current crisis, China may be emerging as the leading economy in the region. But even if it can lead, the direction and nature of its leadership will be important to discern. Otherwise, there may be no followers.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

The writer is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and teaches international law and public policy at the National University of Singapore.

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