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Foreign Policy

Is China’s Dream an Asia-Pacific Dream?

Nov 13 , 2014
  • Yuen Pau Woo

    Distinguished Fellow, Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada


It was perhaps only a matter of time before Chinese President Xi Jinping shared his idea of transforming the China dream into an ‘Asia-Pacific dream’. President Xi made the announcement during a speech to industry leaders at the opening of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing this week. In so doing, he has launched a mini-industry among analysts looking to decipher his words. If there has been puzzlement over the China dream in the last few years, imagine the type of scrutiny and hand-wringing that will come with efforts to interpret the Asia-Pacific dream.

Xi’s announcement was timely, as the PRC’s role in the Asia-Pacific region is larger, broader, and more heavily contested than ever. Cynics will write-off the Asia-Pacific dream as unsophisticated propaganda with little lasting impact. China skeptics, however, will see more danger in the statement, fearing a gradual Sinicization of the region (especially East, Southeast, and Central Asia) based on Beijing’s rules.

To critics, it doesn’t matter that the President described the Asia-Pacific dream as “acting in the spirit of the Asia-Pacific community and out of a sense of shared destinies, following the trend of peace, development and mutually-beneficial cooperation, and jointly working for the prosperity and progress of the region”. These words will only have meaning with the test of time.

Better clues to an interpretation of the Asia-Pacific dream can be found in the rest of President Xi’s speech. He focused on the importance of infrastructure and connectivity of the region, reinforcing his pledge to establish a $40b fund for regional infrastructure development, adding that “China will be both capable and willing to provide more public goods for the Asia-Pacific region and the world, especially new initiatives and visions for enhancing regional cooperation”.

The emphasis on infrastructure underlines an important distinction between popular conceptions of the “American Dream” and Xi’s embryonic idea for an Asia-Pacific version. Whereas the American Dream – epitomized by prosperity, freedom, and a sense of American cinematic heroism — was an end point for poor countries to aspire to, the Asia-Pacific dream of Xi Jinping (and the China Dream that must form part of it) has still to be built — literally. Indeed, the dream is a work-in-progress that was described by Xi more in terms of the type of cooperation that will be needed, rather than as a statement of the destination.

By invoking an Asia-Pacific dream at an APEC Summit meeting, Xi has effectively shifted the conversation in APEC – an organization that has struggled in the last decade to become more effective in promoting the region’s needs. Xi articulated what many people in the region already know– that free trade and open investment (APEC’s mantra) are not sufficient to lift the poorer parts of the region to higher living standards.

China knows better than other countries that infrastructure investment is vital for economic development. For that reason they are investing their own money by spearheading the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the contentious new institution that has yet to receive support from the United States, Japan, or Korea, and has been held back by the incumbent Asian Development Bank in Manila. Yet there is an undeniable demand for trillions of dollars in infrastructure investment across the region, and if a new development bank can provide financing on favorable terms for some of those projects, there will surely be demand for its services.

The AIIB debate is in some ways a mirror of US-China disagreements over the Trans-Pacific Partnership vis-à-vis a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP). In his speech, Xi voiced his support for an FTAAP but went further by describing it using classic APEC terminology. FTAAP should be developed on the principal of “open regionalism”, he said, suggesting that his version of a trans-Pacific free trade agreement would be open to all aspiring members, unlike the TPP. “The door (to FTAAP),” he stressed “is always open”.

Indeed, China sent a very powerful message during its chairmanship of APEC that favors the expansion of membership (especially of India). Xi made his point by having leaders from Cambodia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, and Tajikistan (all non-members of APEC) in Beijing on the eve of the Summit. A country that was not among the original members of APEC, and one which kept a low profile even after joining, has now emerged in many ways as the biggest champion of the regional forum and the most doctrinally-faithful of its adherents.

But Xi’s Asia-Pacific dream speech goes beyond APEC. It is in effect a statement of China’s regional aspirations; an articulation of Beijing’s desire to show leadership beyond China’s borders; and a confident assertion of foreign policy, which China has shied away from for so many years.

Tucked away in President Xi’s speech was the notion of a “China Program” (zhongguo fang'an) for achieving the Asia-Pacific dream. This is a term that increasingly favors China’s unique model of economic development and signals the country’s desire for greater visibility and influence in the region. After years of speculation about a “Beijing consensus” to rival the Washington-centric model of existing multilateral institutions, zhongguo fang'an could well become the rallying point for an alternative approach.

None of the above is a guarantee that Xi’s Asia-Pacific dream will materialize. The world awaits elaboration on how this dream will take shape, and what zhongguo fang'an means for the region. Notwithstanding Xi’s assurances of cooperation and mutual benefit, many of China’s neighbors from time to time will have night visions of a less benign Beijing.

Still, the pathway to a shared dream has now been laid out by the Chinese President. It involves greater openness in the Chinese economy, a larger Chinese business presence throughout the region, and massive investment in physical infrastructure – all of which could lead to greater prosperity for the Asia- Pacific region. For now we will dream, but with our eyes wide open.

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