Nov 12, 2012

Thailand - Challenges at home and abroad for new leaders

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Greater openness will help China meet the expectations of its people, region

The 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party is selecting a new leader to replace President Hu Jintao. As of press time, it was widely expected that Vice President Xi Jinping would lead the fifth generation of Chinese leaders and take the helm of the world's second biggest economy.

The Chinese presidency will play a critical role in influencing international relations especially for Thailand and Asean. The rise of China not only contributes to the rising wealth within the Asian region it also poses concerns about the predominant role of China, politically and strategically.

The new leader of China will have to lead the most-populous country in the face of a reinforced military presence in the region by the US. Thailand and Asean will have to strike a balanced diplomatic approach to ensure constructive relations with the two super-powers and their leaders in Washington and Beijing.

While there is strong interest in Asia by both superpowers, there should not be a crush in the Asean region.

US President Barack Obama wants to increase economic and political ties with Asia in his second term. He is scheduled to arrive here later this week, stopping in Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar, now that the once-isolated country has opened up to the world.

Obama is also keen to increase the US military role in Asia, although that will draw a mixed reaction from countries in the region. Given territorial disputes in the South China Sea, both the Philippines and Vietnam are keen to draw the US into the region. However, countries such as Cambodia don't want to offend Beijing, which has been a generous donor to Phnom Penh.

Economic, political implications

Economically, the US hopes to pursue a regional free-trade deal with countries through the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. Beijing, meanwhile, can boost trade ties through free-trade agreements that China has with Asean countries. The Asean Economic Community (AEC) should also further promote the free flow of regional trade with China. Over the past decade, Thailand and Asean have increased economic ties with China. The rise of a more affluent society in China has created huge demand for goods from countries in the region.

Politically, South Asian countries have played a role in linking the superpowers. The East Asian summit, initiated by the 10 Asean states, also includes strategic partners China, the US, plus India, at the same table.

Under President George W Bush, the US was seen to pay less attention to relations with Asean countries, due to the "war on terror" at that time. So the visit by Obama to Southeast Asia marks a timely boost ties with this region. The opening up of Myanmar marks has also added an appeal to the region.

The challenge ahead for the new leader in China is to work constructively with the region. China will have to become more open to embrace its neighbours to ensure peaceful co-existence.

China's new chief will lead the nation into a modern era when there is increased desire from the public to have a louder say politically. Good governance and transparency will be demanded, not just expected. Outgoing President Hu Jintao warned last week abuse of power by Chinese officials could stir up public contempt. Economically, the new leader in

Beijing will face a challenge in addressing the widening gap of income if opportunities to prosper aren't spread evenly through society.

Internationally, the new leader will have to ensure that the rise of China does not lead to hegemony that threatens stability within the region. Any international disputes should be brought to multilateral forums to ensure peaceful existence with the other countries, as there are major concerns about China seeking to dominate, given the spate of territorial disputes in the South China Sea and North Asia.

These are among the challenges that the new Chinese leaders will have to deal with to ensure that China steps into the coming decades with economic prosperity and peace. Indeed, the role of China is vital in ensuring economic security and stability for us all.

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