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Hubert Védrine: the Asian Challenge

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He is one of the most influential speakers today on the topic of geopolitics for the Left and Right alike. Jacques Chirac boasts of his expert analyses combined with a perfect command of the mechanisms of diplomacy. Hubert Védrine answers our questions.

ESSEC Alumni: Do you believe that there is a French and European perspective regarding Asia?

Hubert Védrine: I do not think so simply because this is a region that is too vast and diversified. Asia, in itself, does not mean anything really. It is as unclear and vague as saying “Africa”, when there are many different situations that exist. For example, one has to distinguish between the democratic countries and the others. There is also a stark difference between the countries that have developed strong national institutions for some time now, and those in South-East Asia who have not completed the construction of their nation. Obviously, on certain concrete topics, be it in France, the United Kingdom (UK) or in Germany, there can be specific perspectives on China, Japan and Korea. Asia is too vast however and as a matter of fact, many are not sure whether to include India or not when referring to “Asia”. It is therefore necessary to reduce the breadth of its borders. As is the case regarding most subjects, Europeans have a hard time agreeing on a definition of this continent. This is because European and Asian countries have entirely different histories and obsessions that are dissimilar. They are easily in agreement regarding general themes such as democracy, human rights, development and peace, but as for the rest, I think that we should forget about trying to have a global approach. So I believe that there is no global perspective regarding Asia.

EA: Despite a slight recession, Asia continues to play a central role in the growth of the rest of the world...

H. Védrine: Yes, it is true that growth in Asia generates part of the growth in the rest of the world. However, one should not lose sight of the fact that these developing countries are emerging from their “Thirty Glorious Years” and are experiencing significant growth rates – growth rates that no longer have two figures. And there is a big question mark on Ecology, because whether we want to admit it or not, the entire world will have to become more ecology-minded in almost all sectors: industry, agriculture, transportation. The Asian developing countries are facing the same situation today that European countries faced at the beginning of the industrial revolution. During COP21, most of them recognized the importance of locking down as many coal-fired power plants as possible and made commitments in that sense. In this respect, they are even more advanced than the Germans or the Polish. They also recognized that it is necessary to continue to use nuclear centrals at least for another generation or so, even though everyone hopes that one day, we will no longer be dependent on this type of method. The strength of developing countries is that they have the opportunity to sidestep several generations of technology and there is no reason why, in terms of the chemical industry for example, they have to go through all the same unnecessary steps we had to, when we could not find any other solutions. Finally, the most recalcitrant countries are not China, Japan or ASEAN countries, but rather India and petrol-producing countries.

EA: Is the Asia-Pacific still an attractive region for foreign investors?

H. Védrine: In principle, there is indeed curiosity and interest, and few large companies can afford to sidestep the region, but it all depends on each individual case. When is it interesting to invest in Vietnam or Malaysia? When does it become interesting to highlight developments in Myanmar? At what point can one be certain that this will be profitable? This raises many questions, all dependent and related to investments, local competition, taxes and justice. Consequently, it is important to conduct in-depth and methodic research and work beforehand in order to decide on what can be deemed interesting or attractive or not.

 

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EA: ESSEC inaugurated its new campus in Singapore last May. Can the region present new opportunities for some French grande écoles and international elite universities?

H. Védrine: There is a strong demand for quality higher education in Asia, like in the rest of the world. It is possible that within certain countries of the region, a number of university systems will become attractive, provided that the political, democratic and cultural conditions are met at a minimum. Singapore is a perfect example of a country that has undergone significant evolution over the past couple of years that has enabled them today to welcome around ten prestigious institutions’ campuses such as ESSEC’s. This cannot work, however, within countries with systems that are still too authoritarian, closed and have not experienced a certain amount of development. Once these conditions are met, some of the countries of the region can indeed possess many advantages for higher education. Especially given that there is a real danger for education in the United States (US) – even though it is still considered the topnotch – that manifests itself in the form of the “politically correct”. We do not realize the extent to which this dogma, originating in American universities in the sixties, is destructive for our capacity to think, reflect, research and therefore transmit. If there is no reaction, this may affect the quality of higher education in top American universities, in the long run, despite the fact that they are still attractive today for many students. Certain Asian countries use this card to attract students from elite families in the region. It is therefore in the best interest of Western elite higher education institutions to establish campuses there. However, just like foreign companies, these institutions must do so in a meticulous and methodic way.

EA: The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC)1 was created on December 31st. Are these member states copying the former European Economic Community (EEC) and the need to resist China’s power and to a lesser extent Japan’s?

H. Védrine: I do not think we can compare the AEC to the EEC or to the European Union whose real forefathers are Stalin – thanks to the threat – and Truman – thanks to the response. The peace that was imposed and established following the Second World War (WWII) allowed Europeans to create something original. For the members of ASEAN, the context is obviously completely different. It is difficult to imagine that one day they may become sufficiently autonomous of and independent from China.
The connections are too important between them; the very existence of the huge Chinese diaspora in certain countries is proof. And we are talking about extremely different countries, who are very “sovereigntist” for the most part, and the nice Europeans of the West, have a tendency to lose sight of this, and have even made the word “sovereign” into a bad word. The Vietnamese are Vietnamese, the Thais are Thais, etc., etc. There is still space however for the more coherence and homogeneity; not to mention that thanks to this new entity, ASEAN countries continue to progress outside of a cooperation system that has been a little coward and unclear to date. I do not think however that this community can become a real union like the one that we know as Europeans. We should not stamp them with an explanatory note that is too European.

EA: For a couple of years now, the Chinese claims over the South and East China Seas have represented a real threat to the stability of the region. Do the member states of ASEAN have the means of responding to this threat?

H. Védrine: I am not sure that they have a common position regarding this issue. They do work together and have a significant weight in regards to issues relating to the economy and growth. However, I doubt that there is much weight when it comes to international negotiation. Beijing’s claims in these Seas concern firstly the US, as there is a potential shock between the Americans, who ensure the freedom of navigation of the seas since World War II, and the Chinese, who aim to progressively control the zone and not just allow anyone to circulate freely there, at least not without their authorization. ASEAN states and Japan have a common viewpoint on this issue. The states seeking a certain independence from China rely on the US for support, including a country such as Vietnam for example, despite their history, have accepted a military collaboration with the powerful American navy. The American factor is therefore central to the South and East China Seas issue.

EA: Can the tensions in South and East China Seas end in a major conflict?

H. Védrine: One cannot exclude that this may cause conflict one day, meaning boat A sinking boat B, but I don’t think a major conflict is imminent. Should there one day be some form of confrontation, breaks will be slammed to prevent the development or spread of such a conflict. It is evident that the Chinese want to increase their influence, but they certainly do not want to have to come to arms. Actually, they have created a certain number of faits accomplis on the islands, playing rather a game of Go and avoiding any head-on conflict. The question is how far are they willing to go? In their minds, they should be considered the dominating world power and whichever the case, for them, they are indeed the dominating power in the Asia-Pacific region and everyone needs to start recognizing this – the Americans and the Japanese included. It is therefore possible that a conflict will arise one day. And Obama’s diplomatic strategy takes this into consideration as will his successor’s, whoever this will be.

 

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EA: Does the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), whose statutes were signed in June 2015, illustrate another way that China is trying to show the Americans and Japanese that they are the leaders in the region?

H. Védrine: For China, the AIIB is an instrument of influence in the region and it is also a way to demonstrate that it can get around the Americans blocking the refor concerning the institutions of the Bretton Woods system. Supported by many of the other developing countries of the region, the Chinese believe that the world should be reorganized as it was following WWII and especially regarding the statutes and roles of each nation particularly within the IMF and the World Bank.
Considering that the American Congress has blocked the reform regarding these two systems, Beijing felt powerful enough to construct a parallel and competing system. This represents the Chinese’s geopolitical reasoning, first and foremost, but can eventually become a powerful instrument on an economic level. France’s and the UK’s participation within the AIIB strengthens this position. As a matter of fact, this is one of the reasons why France and the UK are part of this entity. It would indeed be absurd for them not to be present.

EA: Last January, the Taiwanese brought the opposition party to power2 after the reconciliation that the Kuomintang encouraged with Beijing. Should we read into this that Taiwan seeks to change its relationship with mainland China?

H. Védrine: The Taiwanese have clearly demonstrated their attachment to a way of life that is more modern and democratic than the one present in mainland China. Despite this, the new President, Tsaï Ing-Wen, does not have a lot of room for maneuver. She will not be able to ignore certain important elements: the relationship that exists with China, the extraordinary number of exchanges between them, the trips, the families that are connected, the investors both ways. The Chinese regime is confronted with complicated internal problems and will certainly not allow classical democratic demands to develop anywhere that will challenge the control of the country by the Party, which has become more and more difficult to call communist today. A good example is the fact that China was able to suppress the recent upheavals in Hong Kong.

EA: In conclusion, despite globalization, does Asia or rather, do the countries and regions of Asia remain difficult to understand from our viewpoint?

H. Védrine: Ultimately, this remains a challenge for us Occidentals. We are between fascination and preoccupation regarding these Asian societies that are actually still quite fragile. What’s more, the relationship that we may develop with these countries remains rather weak. Large companies, SMEs exporters and the finance world are exceptions however, as they have long time understood the incredible energy and strength present in a region where everything is still possible. Our ancient and tired societies can only come to the conclusion that we no longer have the monopoly of the world market, despite an unwaveringly strong influence. They will also have no choice but to adapt, especially on a geopolitical level.

 

Biography

Head of French diplomacy during the Chirac-Jospin cohabitation between 1997 and 2002, Hubert Védrine also spent fourteen years serving under François Mitterrand’s two presidential mandates : first as Diplomatic Adviser, he subsequently became Mitterrand’s Presidential Spokesman and Secretary-General. In 2003, after leaving Quai d’Orsay, he created a consulting company in geopolitical strategy called Hubert Védrine Conseil and started working with an important number of large French companies. A graduate of Sciences Po (Paris Institute of Political Studies) and ENA (National School of Administration), he also holds a degree in History. Hubert Védrine is also President of the François Mitterrand Institute and Independent member of the Board of Directors of LVMH for more than ten years now.

 

1. The Economic Community of ASEAN is made up of ten member states: Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar. It represents approximately 625 million inhabitants with a GDP of 2.5 billion dollars and an average growth estimated at 5.5% between 2013 and 2017.
2. On January 16, 2016, the voters of the People's Republic of China (Taiwan), for the first time in history, made a female President of the island. Tsaï Ing-Wen ran as an independent candidate and gathered 56% of the votes cast. Her party, the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party), simultaneously won the majority in the legislative elections, defeating the Kuomintang, the former ruling party, making them the opposition party for the first time since 1949.

 

By Michel Zerr

 

First published in Reflets ESSEC Magazine Special Edition n°2. Click here to suscribe. 

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