Down but Not Out – Japan’s Economy in Recession

Down but Not Out – Japan’s Economy in Recession

While Europe’s troubles continue making headlines Japan’s economy slipped back into recession in late 2012 with barely a mention. Why the difference? Perhaps the island economy shows no hope of recovery after twenty plus years of stagnation, its quiet fade into economic history a near certainty. That would be a decidedly misguided interpretation.

After the go-go years of the “Japan that could say no” (it never really did) and buying sprees in the U.S. including Rockefeller Center sold at a loss several years later, the land of the rising sun entered a period of relative economic darkness. That didn’t mean there wasn’t a ton of money circulating within and increasingly from Japan. Growth stalled but the country itself remained rich. Japan, still the world’s third largest economy  is expected to keep its strong position with a solid $6 trillion in estimated GDP according to the IMF.

Economic stagnation is hardly news for Japan, but coverage has steadily declined largely eclipsed by China’s seemingly unending rise. Add to that the Kabuki-esque political drama where Prime Ministers enter and exit the stage with alarming speed (roughly every 1-2 years) and government paralysis casts a long dark shadow over growth. The latest major economic debate centered on a consumption tax while government debt has risen to over 200% of GDP.

Demographics don’t help either. Alexandra Harney in the New York Times details Japan’s rapidly aging population and its effect on  future economic trajectory (spoiler alert – it doesn’t look good.) Unless there’s a baby boom, immigration increases dramatically to make up for the worker gap or productivity rises there will be a skills shortage.

An increasingly insular Japan also means robust debate has stagnated. In decades past the number of Japanese studying abroad rose considerably. These days it has been reduced to a trickle. Life, it turns out, isn’t so bad in declining Japan. Crime rates are low. The food is good, and public services abundant. A culture of perfectionism keeps the subways running on time and the streets clean. You’d be hard pressed to find more efficiently running cities anywhere else.

Japan’s middle class though has taken the slowdown exceptionally hard over the last several decades. Life-time employment, at one point an unbreakable social contract, has almost ceased to exist with replacement contract work yielding lower salaries and little to no benefits. Housing costs remain high and most singles, even well into their thirties, live at home with their parents to save on rent.

All this might change if a culture of entrepreneurship and an end to the slavish demands of late night corporate culture spreads.

A glimmer of sunlight  has emerged with Rakuten’s founder Mikitani Hiroshi’s creation of an alternate industry lobbying group made up entirely of new economy companies. The Japanese Association of New Economy (abbreviated in Japanese to Shinkeiren) aims to bring innovative policy solutions focusing on the needs of small fast-growing companies. This is a marked departure from the strategy of Japan’s biggest, and most powerful business lobbying group Keidanren representing the country’s conglomerates.

Time will tell if the new group gains any traction with national level policies. If past is prologue they’ll need deep pockets to influence Diet members mostly concerned about occupying seats rather than planning for a brighter future.

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Photo: Tokyo in spring time. BK.

North Korea Misfires (Again)

North Korea Misfires (Again)

Playing the same song (I was going to say record) over and over again gets old. And quoting oneself is lazy for a writer, but North Korea’s latest missile launch is so similar, in geopolitical terms, to its 2009 foray into the rocket business that I couldn’t help myself.

From a May 27, 2009 NYT op-ed “North Korea Misfires”:

 

Sooner or later the regional pendulum will shift and the Kim regime, or some variant of its successors, will feel confident again through this recent display of relative military might. They will inevitably realize that talks are the best alternative among a rapidly diminishing set of options to achieve the security and recognition they crave.

A wave of international condemnation and UN paper threats followed the missile test in 2009. Since then North Korea has installed a new leader despite projections of regime failure should Kim the father pass away without a well established heir (he did, the regime didn’t). Myanmar, one of it’s few allies has reformed bringing a wave of new investment into that country. Iran remains isolated. China has a new leader. Re-joining the Six Party Talks never materialized despite the perennial famine outside the capital and a wave of more intense international sanctions.

North Korea, in the greater constellation of world affairs remains as isolated as ever, but surviving like always.

Longer-range missile capabilities do little to change the military balance in the region. A war, any war, would be devastating to both North and South Korea (due to short-range missiles that can destroy either country’s capitals within in minutes.)

While China has not taken a hard enough line to influence Pyongyang towards talks rather than demonstrations of military prowess perhaps new leader Xi Jinping will realize that this problem country on his border needs to wake up to progress in the rest of the world. Hope springs eternal, but hope is not a policy (and neither is waiting out the regime hoping it will collapse).

The rest of the world has been unable to curb if not stop altogether North Korea’s ability to test missiles. Visitors to Pyongyang have commented on the seemingly better life, relatively speaking, in the capital. Trade with China continues. While a minor threat to the world-at-large this latest missile test helps the new Kim  demonstrate to his father’s generals that he too can defend the nation (even from fictitious enemies always on the ready to strike).

Perhaps he has finally earned his stripes and can now turn to more important matters like economic reform and opening.

If that were to happen the U.S. should be ready to talk starting with a simple gesture, say an invitation to the North Korean orchestra well after this latest missile test (renewed attention can’t be a reward). That closes the loop on the NY philharmonic visit to Pyongyang in 2008. Throw in a jazz concert at Lincoln Center for good measure.

North Korea returning to its de-nuclearization pledge as a precondition for any talks is a non-starter.  An all-or-nothing approach has failed to achieve results. Start small and move on to the more difficult talks later. But find a reason to talk.

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Photo: North Korean soldier on the NK side of the Yalu River.

Asia Integration Leaves U.S. Behind

Asia Integration Leaves U.S. Behind

You can’t blame them for trying. U.S. trade negotiators have been at it for years but conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) keeps receding over the horizon. A June deadline was floated and then passed quietly by. The end of 2012 came next (here and almost gone). Japan and possibly even Korea thought of joining when news broke that Mexico and Canada, already NAFTA members with the U.S., were signing up. Neither has committed.

Meanwhile, Asia is moving ahead with its own far less stringent version of free trade in two proposals: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) launched at the annual ASEAN gathering in late November; and a trilateral China-Japan-South Korea free trade agreement announced in May (negotiations started in November.)

Holding a press conference and successfully completing negotiations are, of course, two very different animals. No doubt recent regional tensions over disputed islands in the East and South China Seas involving mostly China, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines make any agreement extremely difficult to achieve. Still, all countries involved appear to be forging ahead despite the obstacles in their way.

Asia has taken a decidedly different approach regarding free trade in the region from the U.S. Starting with the lowest common denominators (goods) and through successive agreements working their way up the value-added ladder (limited, then expanded services, broader non-tariff barriers to trade, rules of origin, etc.) This incremental approach, especially when economies at significantly different levels of development are involved, has worked especially well for both China and South Korea in their agreements throughout the region.

The U.S. on the other hand seeks “high standard” agreements encompassing a variety of non-tariff barriers to trade, intellectual property rights protections and labor and environmental standards, all in one comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

These are noble goals and of particular interest to U.S. companies who have an enormous number of laws regulating their business at home and abroad. For many with extensive intellectual property to protect the graveyard of international business is littered with the remains of products that have been copied and sold at lower prices. To truly level the playing field they need the additional protections offered in high-standard FTAs.

The problem lies in strategy, not substance. This all-or-nothing approach leaves potential deals on the table while U.S.-based firms continue losing out to their counterparts based in Asia. U.S multi-nationals are increasingly incentivized to locate production overseas where they can source and sell within a tariff-free zone. Even a few percentage points off duties can have a tremendous effect on profitability.

No solution to this problem is in sight. U.S. trade policy has focused almost exclusively on the TPP and purely defensive measures (e.g. WTO cases to remedy unfair trade practices). Asia meanwhile forges ahead. When RCEP comes to fruition India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and the ten countries of ASEAN would become one integrated free trade zone. If current strategy doesn’t change soon (or the TPP keeps being delayed) the U.S. won’t even be on the map.

 

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Photo: Yang Shan Deep Water Port, China.

China’s Questionable Market Recovery

Money has to stay fit. It gets soft just lying on the couch, feet up on the coffee table, flipping through reality TV shows.  And this week the money looks like its running back to Asia.

The Shanghai composite index jumped 2.87% on Wednesday prompting a flurry of reporting on the re-awakening of China’s stock market. What a jump. Better days here we come . . .

Chart Source: Yahoo Finance

But before we get ahead of ourselves, take a look at the year-to-date chart.

Chart Source: Yahoo Finance, annotations added.

Yes, it’s that little blip at the bottom edge of the chart. The same uptick that occurred once in October, twice in September, and once in August and June as we climb backwards up the downward facing slope (not a yoga move).

 

For even greater perspective take a look at the last five years while the collective West was supposedly entering inevitable decline, imploding under the weight of its own capitalistic excesses. The mole hill made mountain is just barely visible, way down there in the corner, like the raw unamplified light of a distant galaxy.

Chart Source: Yahoo Finance, annotations added.

Even more illustrative than all the hype surrounding this minor bump is the shape of the longer Shanghai curve. The “V-shaped recovery” ended unceremoniously in July 2009 turning into a long, sustained slump (losing over 40% of its value in the last three and half years.) Compare that to the S&P 500 in the “declining” U.S. over the same period (in orange). The S&P elongated “U”-shaped recovery just keeps going (a rocky road, but climbing), and up 20% from Shanghai’s July 2009 peak.

Chart Source: Yahoo Finance, annotations added.

Fundamentally little has changed in the Chinese economy to warrant sustained optimism about stock market recovery. There has been excessive infrastructure investment which will have questionable returns going forward. Local governments are saddled with rising debt. Land development projects increasingly go unfilled or unfinished.  And accounting scandals continue to rock the boat of listed companies, several of which are leaving U.S. markets because of detailed reporting requirements (read investor protection).

Talk of a Chinese soft landing and bounce-back have been de rigeur for some time. There wasn’t a mortgage market bust or banking crisis like in the U.S. (though there are signs of significantly under-reported bank liabilities, off-balance sheet transactions, “alternative” funding schemes, and real estate inventory backlogs of staggering proportions.) But then again, soft-ish landing doesn’t rule out slower days ahead. The U.S. hard landing actually resulted in a far stronger market recovery it turns out. For a sober analysis of China’s financial predicament see Michael Pettis’s “Three cheers for new data?“.

None of this means you can’t make a mint on short-term trading (full disclosure, I am not a short-term trader), but a small spike in an otherwise downbeat cycle hardly marks a trend. Money keeps running the treadmill in the basement to try and stay fit. Funny thing about home exercise equipment, after a few good runs it rarely gets used again.

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Five Quick Fixes to Grow China’s Economy – Quartz Article

Five Quick Fixes to Grow China’s Economy – Quartz Article

The veil has finally been lifted on China’s leadership mystery. Questions now loom large over what, if any, reforms are likely over the next decade. So far critiques of the new seven-member ruling body point to a more conservative streak (don’t expect a democratic thaw anytime soon.) Those with the strongest reform credentials were either left out of the standing committee selection or reassigned. And no one knows for sure what Xi Jinping has in mind beyond platitudes not unique to the political class.

One certainty still stands out. Without significant reform China’s best days may be behind it as growth slows and opportunity stagnates. Five areas of low-hanging fruit would have a significant near-term impact including: ending the hukou residency permit system; opening the financial sector; building a social safety net; equitable tax collection; and an independent judiciary that can fight corruption.

Read the full article on Quartz.

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Excerpt: © 2012, Brian P. Klein, as first published on Quartz.

100 Minutes of Lip Service – Quartz Commentary

100 Minutes of Lip Service – Quartz Commentary

China’s political transition is in full swing in Beijing, replete with lengthy speeches and obligatory internet crackdowns. Outgoing President Hu Jintao’s lengthy reading of the most pressing issues facing the party—in oratory second only to Castro’s multi-hour monologues (minus the Cuban’s fiery delivery)—went on for a good 100 minutes. He made an ominous warning over corruption spoiling the party and threatening the state.

By western media accounts you’d think China was finally getting serious about graft in the world’s second largest economy. That this was considered news in the US says more about the inability to separate propaganda from policy than it does about any new crackdown in China.

Read the full commentary on Quartz.

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Excerpt: © 2012, Brian P. Klein, as first published on Quartz.

Ten Foreign Policy Priorities for Obama – CNN Commentary

Ten Foreign Policy Priorities for Obama – CNN Commentary

(From CNN GPS – full list here.) Barack Obama has won reelection as America’s president. But while the economy – and avoiding the so-called fiscal cliff – will inevitably take up much of his time, there are numerous foreign policy challenges facing the next administration. GPS asked 10 leading foreign policy analysts to name 10 things that Obama should focus on next. The views expressed are, of course, the authors’ own.

Drop China ambiguity

By Brian Klein

Brian P. Klein is a global strategist and former U.S. diplomat. He blogs at Klein’s Commentary.

China’s economic rise and increasing military assertiveness have pushed U.S. strategic ambiguity to its limits. If a decisive position isn’t taken soon, allies and friendly countries will question whether the U.S. can back up its Asia pivot talk with action. Focusing on realistic trade liberalization, increased military contacts with China and firm engagement rather than the blame and shame tactics of the past must become a priority.

Meanwhile, the once vaunted Arab Spring, so full of promise and democratic zeal, shows signs of entering a long dark winter. Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsy whittles away at reforms in the marginally secular republic, while Syria’s civil war now threatens regional stability, with conflict overflowing into Turkey and Lebanon. Boots on the ground may not be an option, but a focused effort to influence, if not completely resolve these destabilizing trends will be essential to restoring peace.

Post-Debate Wrap-Up: The Candidates on Asia

Post-Debate Wrap-Up: The Candidates on Asia

The final 2012 U.S. Presidential Debate went off without a hitch last night as both candidates stuck closely to their foreign policy talking points. China was meant to feature prominently with time devoted explicitly to the bilateral relationship. After brief opening remarks both Obama and Romney veered off topic and returned to the jobs question, a perennial favorite whenever China comes up.

What we know of the candidates’ positions from last night’s sometimes testy exchange paint a picture of a complicated U.S. relationship with the world’s second largest economy. These include concerns over the loss of domestic manufacturing, rule of law and growing military strength balanced against commercial opportunities half a world away (see full transcript starting with the China question here.)

Romney came out swinging with the now somewhat antiquated claim that China is a currency manipulator. In his own words:

“We’ll also make sure that we have trade relations with China that work for us. I’ve watched year in and year out as companies have shut down and people have lost their jobs because China has not played by the same rules, in part by holding down artificially the value of their currency. It holds down the prices of their goods. It means our goods aren’t as competitive and we lose jobs. That’s got to end.

They’re making some progress; they need to make more. That’s why on day one, i will label them a currency manipulator, which allows us to apply tariffs where they’re taking jobs. They’re stealing our intellectual property, our patents, our designs, our technology, hacking into our computers, counterfeiting our goods.

They have to understand we want to trade with them. We want a world that’s stable. We like free enterprise, but you got to play by the rules.”

Technical issues aside (as the Treasury Department has ruled against that legally very specific manipulator charge in the past), inexpensive Chinese manufactured goods are the result of low cost labor, economies of scale and exchange rates.

No matter what happens the jobs lost to China (and many other countries including Mexico, Turkey, India, and Bangladesh), including low-end garment production, household goods, and assembly work won’t be returning. If Chinese products became more expensive production would shift to other low-wage countries. Check the labels the next time you go shopping and you might be surprised where clothing is manufactured these days.

Even if Romney as President labeled China a currency manipulator, the remedy includes tariffs against Chinese goods. As the moderator Bob Scheiffer accurately pointed out, that would risk a trade war with China. Romney replied that China exports more to the U.S. than the other way around so they have more to lose. This simplistic version of trade does not reflect the realities of international commerce.

Sudden tariff increases would be a particularly reckless course of action which does absolutely nothing to solve the core problems facing U.S. labor, namely better paying U.S. jobs. The effects of punitive action would wreak havoc with trade on both sides of the Pacific and the intricately linked global supply chain.

China’s currency has also been appreciating over the past several years and labor costs are rising as well. Romney’s missive, along with the ear-catching phrase that they “must play by rules” which Obama also reiterated, did little to address real trade frictions like further opening of Chinese markets to U.S. goods, greater Chinese enforcement of intellectual property rights protection, and cracking down on counterfeits entering the U.S. That’s more of what we needed from both candidates.

Obama countered with his own “get tough” strategy including an increasing number of WTO cases levied against China (most of which are won by the U.S.) that did give temporary advantage to U.S. manufacturers of tires and steel. Both industries, however are slow growth and lacking in innovative strategies to remain globally competitive.

Clear examples and real world solutions were needed, only the solutions part was sorely lacking.

On the security front there was precious little mentioned about China’s rise, the U.S. pivot to Asia, tensions in the South China Sea, North Korea, or recent China-Japan disputes. Obama did say:

“We believe China can be a partner, but we’re also sending a very clear signal that America is a Pacific power; that we are going to have a presence there. We are working with countries in the region to make sure, for example, that ships can pass through; that commerce continues. And we’re organizing trade relations with countries other than China so that China starts feeling more pressure about meeting basic international standards.”

And then the conversation veered off into Detroit autos and cuts to education. There was no grand U.S. policy towards Asia offered by or asked of the candidates.

For the most part U.S. voters aren’t even that concerned about U.S. foreign policy when it comes to picking the president. What they want to see is a candidate capable of securing the country against threats, decisiveness and calmness under pressure. The real concern remains jobs, jobs, and then jobs. That’s why the debate consistently put foreign policy back into the domestic context.

All the candidates really needed to do was get in a few good verbal punches here and there and stay off the ropes. That’s what the debate delivered, but little else.

 

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U.S. Presidential Debate – A Foreign Policy Primer

U.S. Presidential Debate – A Foreign Policy Primer

With two weeks left before election day candidates Obama and Romney tackle foreign policy issues tonight. If last week’s battle royale over the economy is any indication this promises to be a no-holds-barred verbal slug fest. Tremendous changes have occurred over the last four years in the Middle East, Europe and Asia. Osama Bin Laden is dead, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are over. Dictators have fallen from decades in power. China continues to rise.

Still, the global economy has yet to fully recover with Europe teetering on the edge of recession and Japan mired in stagnant economic waters. Middle East political movements struggle to sustain new democracies and China’s economic and military advances raise questions about Asia’s future balance of power.

Here’s a primer on some of the big issues likely to be addressed and a few questions that need to be asked. The debate begins at 9:00pm EST.

Middle East

Since Obama took office four years ago a surprise Arab Spring swept across the region. Libya, Egypt, and Yemen saw leadership changes brought about by popular uprisings. Syria is still mired in its own civil war with little hope of quick resolution. While nascent democracies sprung up after the overthrow of decades of dictatorships serious questions remain about their stability and policies going forward.

For now the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt holds a tentative control with the military watching from behind the scenes for any signs of the nominally secular government turning into an Islamist stronghold. Libya meanwhile struggles with establishing a strong central government as events in Benghazi, where the U.S. Consulate was destroyed and diplomats killed by a terrorist attack, demonstrate.

In Iran a nuclear standoff continues with enrichment activities racing ahead and Israel threatening attack (though as sanctions take a deeper bit out of the Iranian economy Israeli President Netanyahu has eased off the war rhetoric).

The U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan marks the end of major U.S. operations in the region, closing a decade-long period of intervention initiated by the former Bush administration. The Afghanistan government still struggles with providing basic services to its people and countering threats of Taliban violence.

What will Obama or Romney do to further promote democracy in the Middle East without inflaming anti-U.S. sentiment? How can Iran’s nuclear ambitions be eliminated? Is Afghanistan going to slip into chaos once U.S. troops leave?

Asia

China’s inexorable rise gathered speed since January 2009. It completed construction on its first aircraft carrier, became the world’s second largest economy, and has survived the worst of the global economic meltdown with one of the world’s best growth rates. U.S. economic ties with China remains strong which has helped keep domestic inflation low.

Potential flare-ups, however in the South China Sea (with neighbors Vietnam and the Philippines) and East China Sea (with Japan) linger behind the facade of China’s “peaceful rise”. A once in a decade political transition is also underway with China’s new leaders expected to be officially acknowledged on November 8th and installed in March, 2013. Trade frictions are on the rise with increased WTO cases on goods ranging from tires to solar panels. The economy has slowed considerably from the unsustainable double-digit sprint of years past. Some economist predict much tougher times ahead as China’s new leadership faces a country in transition unlike any other time in recent history.

North Korea too has changed since Obama first took office. A young and relatively untested new leader, Kim Jong-Eun rose to power seizing every major military, political and governmental role in quick succession since his father’s passing. In one of the world’s most isolated regimes the family political dynasty remains intact. Hopes for significant economic liberalization have so far failed to materialize and tensions persistent on the world’s last Cold War front.

What does China’s rise mean for U.S. security and economic growth? Is China’s strategic intent to replace the U.S. as main regional influence and what will the U.S. do about it? What will you do as President to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula and end the decades-long hostilities between North and South Korea?

Europe

Germany, the powerhouse of the continent, has lowered growth forecasts to a barely treading above water 1% for 2012. Most were hoping that the manufacturing giant could sustain strong growth against the headwinds of Spanish, Greek, and Portuguese recession along with a lackluster UK and newly integrated eastern European economies.  As the world’s engines of growth stall one-by-one, the threats of a larger global recession increase, as the IMF has warned with increasing regularity.

How will the European slowdown affect the U.S. economy and can the U.S. avert even more economic troubles if Europe stalls?

Terrorism

Attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and a recently thwarted attempt in Jordan in addition to continued fronts in Yemen and now Mali show that the treats of terrorism have not abated. As long as arms continue to flow into the hands of radical groups and weak or failed states remain the threat of violence will continue. Concerted and sustained action can, however minimize the depths of the threat and seriously disrupt organizations bent on destruction.

What can and should the U.S. do to further combat terrorist organizations? Is the Al-Qaeda threat still a focal point of U.S. foreign policy?

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China’s Global Leadership Gap – CNN Commentary

China’s Global Leadership Gap – CNN Commentary

(Also on CNN’s Global Public Square here.)

In a rare and telling diplomatic snub this week China refused to send People’s Bank of China Governor Zhou Xiaochuan to the IMF/World Bank meeting held in Tokyo. The slight, related to the continued stand-off with Japan over a disputed island chain in the East China Sea says more about China’s prospects for greater global leadership than a bilateral territorial disagreement.

For several years running China’s economy has grown along with its ambitions for recognition. Internationalizing the yuan as a reserve currency, more influence over international lending institutions and respect as a leading business and financial center have been chief among them.

The meeting boycott marks the latest in a string of retaliatory acts, including using informal trade measures meant to punish countries acting in ways China dislikes. Imports from the Philippines were suddenly subjected to enhanced inspection and quarantine over a dispute in the South China Sea Rare earth exports critical to Japan’s electronics industry were also suspended in a 2010 island conflict. These steps mark a troubling and regressive tendency in Chinese foreign economic policy.

Since joining the World Trade Organization back in 2001 Beijing has enjoyed many of the benefits of membership while at the same time using protectionist measures to give domestic industries significant advantage. Trade has been used increasingly as a political tool contravening over a decade of engagement to keep these two policy spheres apart.

Refusing to attend the annual international finance meeting will further damage China’s hopes for greater recognition. At a time when the risks of global recession are increasing retrenchment adds doubts about a potential leadership role. While Beijing might think its status as the world’s second largest economy makes it increasingly vital to any discussion, the world continues to turn without it.

Xi Jinping and the rest of China’s new leaders in waiting inherit a country in transition. Rising domestic wage pressure, a slowing economy, and renewed doubts about the security of joint venture intellectual property suggest China’s global economic influence may soon be waning, not continually rising. If slower growth becomes a trend rather than a temporary blip and anti-Japanese business sentiment grows into a broader missive against foreign companies, the lure of China’s growing market would dim significantly.

Embracing the complexities of international discourse rather than shying away from them mark an important maturing stage. Equally important are policies that further opening and reform increasing international participation in China’s domestic economy. This enhances both the perception and reality that China is dedicated to continued global integration. Pulling a no-show at an international gathering in a neighboring country does not.

 

Photo: Tiananmen Square looking north to the Forbidden City. Brian P. Klein.
Slogan by Mao’s portrait reads “May the Communist Party of China Live for Ten Thousand Years” (a former imperial saying re-purposed after the 1949 revolution).