A special report on China’s place in the world
IN A recent essay Hugh White, a former Australian security and defence official, describes the following exchange with his American counterparts: “I put this catechism to them: ‘Do you think America should treat China as an equal if its power grows equal to America’s?’ The answer is always no. Then I ask, ‘Do you think China will settle for anything less than being treated as equal?’ The answer to that is always no, too. Then I ask, ‘So how do you expect the US and China to get along?’ I usually get a shrug by way of reply.”
That shrug is a measure of America’s difficulty in designing a China policy. America wants China to be a thriving market for its goods. It also wants China to become an active, responsible power in world affairs. Yet at the same time it feels threatened by China’s growing economic, industrial, diplomatic and military might. When America dislikes a position China has taken, it cries foul. This mix of partnership and rivalry is a recipe for confusion.
One way to resolve these tensions would be to put security first. America could aim to block China now before it gets any stronger. America won the cold war by isolating the Soviet economy and stalemating its armed forces. But trying that again would be a bad idea, as Robert Art explains in a recent issue of Political Science Quarterly. For one thing, the cost would be astronomical; for another, America might suffer as much as China. The two countries’ economies are intertwined and China owns more American government debt than anyone else. In war, nations override such factors out of necessity. If an American president tried to override them in peace out of choice, he would face dissent at home and opprobrium abroad.
The risks of containment
In any case, a policy of containment risks backfiring, except against an unambiguously hostile China. Unless America could persuade large parts of the world to join in, China would still have access to most markets. A belligerent United States would risk losing the very alliances in Asia that it was seeking to protect. And Joseph Nye, of the Kennedy School at Harvard, has argued that the best way to make an enemy of China is to treat it like one.
America may one day feel it has no choice but to focus on security alone, which is what China fears. By contrast, to focus on economics and forget security makes no sense at all. America has vital interests in Asia. It wants to prevent nuclear proliferation in the Korean peninsula and Japan. It has allies to protect and threats to police. It needs accessible sea lanes and open markets. America is the world’s pre-eminent power. It cannot surrender Asia without losing influence everywhere else.
Hence for the past 15 years America has fallen back on a two-track China policy. Barack Obama articulated the first track on his visit to China in November last year. He told the students at Fudan University, in Shanghai: “The United States insists we do not seek to contain China’s rise. On the contrary, we welcome China as a strong and prosperous and successful member of the community of nations.” This means, as the president later explained in front of Hu Jintao, his Chinese opposite number, that China’s “growing economy is joined by growing responsibilities”.
“Engagement” is backed by a second policy, best described as hedging. America must be able to deploy enough force to deter China. Presidents do not articulate this track quite so eagerly, but Admiral Robert Willard, head of Pacific Command, was clear enough in his remarks to Congress earlier this year: “Until…it is determined that China’s intent is indeed benign, it is critical that we maintain the readiness of our postured forces; continually reinforce our commitment to our allies and partners in the region; and meet each challenge by the PRC in a professional manner that is consistent with international law.”
America faced some straightforward, if terrifying, calculations in its monochromatic relationship with the Soviet Union. By contrast, its technicolour dealings with China are less apocalyptic, but many times more complex—almost unmanageably so.
In principle, the policy’s two tracks fit together well. Engagement is designed to reward good behaviour and hedging to deter bad. In practice, however, the hedge risks undermining the engagement. To see why, consider that the existence of two tracks acts as an excuse to leave important issues unresolved in America. China hawks and China doves can all support the policy, because both can continue to think that they will ultimately be proved right.
That is politically handy in Washington, but hardly ideal as a policy. The engagement tends to be run by China specialists in the state department and the hedge tends to be run out of the Pentagon. In theory the policy’s two dimensions should be weighted according to whether or not China’s behaviour is threatening. With the best will in the world, the departments of state and defence do not always work well together. All too often, a twin-track policy can function as two separate policies.
Read my lips
That matters because Mr Obama’s generous words towards China are not taken at face value there. However sincere, no president’s words could be: pledges are broken and presidents come and go. America sends a signal when it redeploys naval forces to the Pacific and its admirals tell Congress that “China’s interest in a peaceful and stable environmentis difficult to reconcile with [its] evolving military capabilities.” Those judgments make good sense for America’s security, but they get in the way of the message that the United States welcomes China’s rise and has no intention of blocking it.
Hedging is not engagement’s only complication. For much of the past 15 years, commerce drew America towards China. Indeed, globalisation became a large part of the engagement story. But now that one in ten Americans is without work, economic policy has taken on a protectionist tinge. If China loses the political backing of America’s big-business lobby, which has lately been growing restive at its treatment in China, then the tone in Washington will shift further. Thus commerce could also start to add to Chinese fears that America will ultimately choose to block it.
The second doubt about America’s China policy is whether America has fully accepted what engagement asks of it. The policy rests on two notions. First, that China can develop as a “satisfied power”—one that feels no need to overturn the post-war order created and maintained by America. And second, that if China more or less abides by global norms, America will be able to accommodate its interests. So engagement supposes that China and America can find a stable mix of Chinese adherence and American accommodation.
Does China abide by “global norms”? At one time the common belief was that, as Bill Clinton said, “when it comes to human rights and religious freedom, China remains on the wrong side of history.” Some Western analysts like to issue caveats about devious, far-sighted Chinese strategy. Against this racial stereotype, however, it was America, not China, that founded its policy on the maxim of Sun Tzu that it is best to win without fighting.
Chinese values have changed beyond recognition since Mao’s day, when terror was dismally routine. As Richard McGregor writes in his book, “The Party”, terror is now used sparingly. Hu Jintao’s China works on seduction and bribery rather than suppression. And yet China is still a one-party state and terror remains essential to its survival. When the party needs protecting, it is applied without scruple.
Likewise, in international affairs China no longer backs insurgencies against its neighbours or routinely adopts intransigent positions, seemingly for the sake of it. Yet the West still finds it a difficult partner. American critics such as Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington accuse China of a “supermarket approach”: it buys what it must, picks up what it wants and ignores what it does not.
Hope is not a policy
The hope is that in years to come China will indeed grow to be more democratic and that it will play its part in world affairs. But, says Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state under George Bush, “hope is not a policy.” Given the problems of Western democracies and China’s economic success and relative stability, says Richard Woolcott, a special envoy for the Australian prime minister, China’s conversion to a multiparty democracy no longer seems quite so inevitable. Just now, the Communist Party looks firmly in control.
Suppose, therefore, that China remains a communist, authoritarian, one-party state with a growing appetite to get its way. Can America accommodate it?
Some American thinkers, like John Ikenberry, of Princeton University, make the argument that America has created a rules-based system that is uniquely able to absorb new members. Institutions like the United Nations, the G20, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) could, in theory at least, operate even without American leadership. According to this picture, America can accept China so long as it fits in with this order.
But the picture is flawed. America has indeed been willing to be bound by rules in ways that 19th-century European powers never were. That is one reason why so many countries have been prepared to live under its sway. However, when America thinks important interests are at stake, it still ignores the rules, just like the next hegemon. In 2005 the bid of the China National Offshore Oil Company to buy America’s Unocal was, in effect, blocked after a public outcry. When America wanted a nuclear deal with India, it rode a coach and horses through the NPT. It fought in the Balkans in the 1990s and again in Iraq in 2003 without the endorsement of the United Nations. It may yet go to war with Iran on the same basis.
This is not to dispute the merits of each case, though some of those decisions looked foolish even at the time. Rather the point is that superpowers break the rules when they must—and nobody can stop them. Over time that logic will increasingly apply to China too. America must decide whether “accommodating China” means living with this or denying it.
In fact, there are difficulties with judging whether China is a responsible stakeholder. From the Chinese point of view, America always seems to define acceptable international conduct as falling in with its own policy. In the words of Yuan Peng, of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations in Beijing, America’s complaint is “not that China says no to global responsibility or denies its role in world affairs, but rather that it declines to say yes to every US request”.
Accommodation is easy when that means letting China do what America wants. But will America let China do things that it does not want? The shadow overhanging America’s engagement policy is that China will not change enough to satisfy America and America will not yield enough to satisfy China. That may sound abstract, but it could at any time become brutally real, either on the Korean Peninsula or across the Taiwan Strait.
Nobody knows whether the North Korean regime will survive, nor what might come after Kim Jong Il and Kim Junior. But imagine for a moment that, on the death of the Dear Leader, North Korea descends into anarchy or lashes out, as it did in the island attack last month that killed South Korean servicemen and civilians. The ensuing crisis would severely test the capacity of China and America to live with each other.
Everyone would be worried about North Korea’s nuclear weapons. America may want to seize them, but China would not like American soldiers on its borders. Nor would China wish America or South Korea to assert control over the North, an ally and a buffer. In the longer run, China may expect to regain the sort of influence over a unified Korea that, as the dominant Asian land power, it has exercised throughout most of history.
This raises a host of questions. Would America trust China to mop up North Korea’s plutonium and enriched uranium? Would China accept the idea that South Korean troops should re-establish order in the North? Would it allow Korean reunification? If that happened, would America contemplate ultimately withdrawing its troops from the peninsula?
Depressingly little thought has been given to these questions. As far as anybody knows, China is not willing even to discuss them with America, because it does not want to betray a lack of confidence in its eccentric ally in the North. Yet, if talking about Korea is awkward now, it will be even more fraught in the teeth of a crisis.
If the two Koreas share the world’s scariest land border, the Taiwan Strait is its scariest sea passage. China’s insistence on reunification is absolute. The story is told of how, a few years back, the editor of a Shanghainese newspaper celebrated a new semiconductor factory in the city as the biggest in China. Because he had forgotten about Taiwan, he had to offer self-criticism and take a pay cut.
However, rather than beat Taiwan with a stick, China these days spoons it honey instead. Hundreds of flights a month link the mainland to Taipei. The free-trade agreement with Taiwan signed this summer included measures to help Taiwanese farmers, who tend to support the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). China has recently hinted that it might one day be willing to point its missiles away from Taiwan.
For the moment the policy seems to be working. The DPP lost power in 2008. Never mind that its successor, the Kuomintang, is the Chinese Communist Party’s old enemy. Under Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan is being pragmatic. The Taiwanese people appear to want neither to enrage China by seeking independence, nor to want to surrender their democracy to a one-party state.
This is just fine with America. Its arms sales to Taiwan continue, but it could just about live with a single China so long as unification came about peacefully. What it could not abide would be unification by force. Strictly, the Taiwan Relations act of 1979 does not compel America to come to Taiwan’s aid. However, barring egregious provocation of China by Taiwan, America would have little choice but to intervene. If America just stood by, it would lose the trust of its allies across the world.
Taiwan remains a flashpoint. Taiwanese democracy could lead to a desire for independence, Chinese nationalism could make reunification more urgent, and America could be afraid of appearing weak. Even now, when the mood is good, the island is a test of Chinese and American restraint. America needs to be clear that it will not be manipulated: Taiwan cannot rashly bid for independence on the assumption that America will protect it. China needs to understand that coercion would destroy its credentials with the rest of the world. America does not expect China to renounce its aims; it does expect China to satisfy them within the system.
Policymakers often sneer at diplomats for their compromises and half-truths. Yet the high calling of diplomacy is to find antidotes to the rivalries that poison geopolitics. Not since the 19th century have they had as great a task as managing the relationship between China and America. In Mr Obama’s administration they have a name for this: “strategic reassurance”.