Thursday, January 7, 2010

Are Americans Ready for the Rise of China?

The rise of China is not entirely assured – the country has many internal contradictions that could pose significant problems – but I think the most likely scenario is that the growth of China will continue for the foreseeable future, that the balance of power between China and the U.S. will shift in China’s direction, and that China will adopt a more assertive foreign policy. Are Americans ready for this development? The short answer, I’m afraid, is no.

First of all, a strong China is a phenomenon with which Americans have no historical experience. From the founding of the U.S. up until quite recently, China has been experiencing a long period of national weakness (indeed, from the Chinese perspective, 150 years of “national humiliation,” followed by thirty years of highly uneven performance under Mao Zedong). Although Americans feared the spread of Chinese-supported revolutionary movements in the Third World Maoist ideology in the 1960s and early 1970s, this aspect of Chinese foreign policy reflected China’s weakness, not its strength. The customary American predisposition is that the U.S. should help a poor China develop, preferably following an American model. That teacher-student orientation no longer fits a rapidly changing reality of a China that is becoming wealthier, stronger, and increasingly self-confident. For the U.S., the new reality is completely unprecedented.

Not only is China rising, but it is the first potential rival of the United States that is accumulating all dimensions of national power. With its ideological appeal waning and with its planned economy inefficient, the Soviet Union had become, by the 1960s, primarily a military power, resting on a weak economic base. Japan had an attractive popular and traditional culture, but it placed severe restrictions on the development of its military capabilities so that, when it rose to global status in the 1980s, it did so almost exclusively as an economic power. China, in contrast, is poised soon to become the world’s largest economic power (terms of aggregate GDP measured in purchasing power parity terms), is developing more extensive force projection capabilities, and is trying to enhance its soft power. That too is unprecedented in the American experience as a superpower.

At the same time that China is rising, the U.S. appears to be stumbling. American soft power has been undermined by its domestic and foreign policy problems, its economic power has been hampered by the global financial crisis and by its high levels of indebtedness, and its military power is strained by the simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although there is still a large power gap between the U.S. and China, that gap is narrowing, at least on the economic and military dimensions. Moreover, unlike China, which remains almost exclusively an Asian power, the U.S. must project its power resources on a global stage. That makes it more difficult for the U.S. to continue to be the dominant, or at least preeminent, power in Asia. This suggests the limited utility of our tendency to see the future course of China as the key variable that will shape the evolution of U.S.-China relations as the future course of China. To me, ensuring a vibrant Asia and a strong America that remains actively engaged with Asia is equally important.

There is still a tendency in some quarters to dismiss the risks posed by a rising China. As James Mann pointed out several years ago in his provocative book, The China Fantasy, many observers assign what he and I both regard as excessively high probabilities to two “soothing scenarios” about the future of China: one that China will soon become democratic, the other that China will experience some kind of internal crisis. Of course, one could argue that neither of these two scenarios is all that “soothing”: a democratic China could, at least in its early decades, be characterized by a high level of popular nationalism, and a decaying China could present its neighbors (and indeed the rest of the world) with a variety of transnational security problems. But the more important problem with these two scenarios is that their probabilities, in my judgment, are not that high.

Nor is the probability of a third “soothing scenario,” more recent in vintage: that even if it does not experience democratization, China will be compelled by its own national interests to form a highly cooperative partnership with the United States to address common bilateral, regional, and global issues. It is perfectly appropriate for the two sides to say that they want to create such a relationship, and on that basis to try to promote their collaboration. And certainly the two countries will find areas in which they will be able to cooperate effectively. It is naïve, however, to assume that the U.S.-China relationship will ever involve by unalloyed cooperation on all major issues. Rather, the China-U.S. relationship will be characterized by a complex blend of cooperation and competition. China will be competing with the United States as it tries to develop its comprehensive national power. And even as Beijing shares common interests with Washington on a number of important international issues, it will often differ over how to allocate the costs and benefits of cooperation, or how to define the best strategies for advancing those common goals.

This runs up against another problem in our approach to China: Americans have a tendency to view other major powers in black-or-white terms – as either allies or adversaries. That is especially true of China, with whom we have historically had a “love-hate” relationship that oscillates from one extreme to another. Just as we have little experience in dealing with a strong China, nor do we have much experience in dealing with a China that simultaneously both a partner and a competitor. Seeing China as a potential enemy runs the risk of being a self-fulfilling hypothesis. But, at the same time, seeing China as a uniquely important partner in dealing with common problems runs the risk of excessive naiveté.

The good news is that our mainstream China policy combines, in proper balance, the desire to build a more cooperative relationship with China and the foresight to hedge against less desirable outcomes. Any departure from that mainstream – be it the Bush Administration’s early declaration that it regarded China simply as our “strategic competitor” or the Obama Administration’s overly enthusiastic description of the U.S.-China relationship as “the most important bilateral relationship in the world in this century”—is likely to be criticized, no longer to be replaced with the opposite orientation, but rather to be adjusted so that the U.S. returns to its mainstream policy

But the bad news is that we will have to develop a more objective and more pragmatic understanding of China, and above all to build a stronger material and ideational base for dealing with China, for that balanced policy to be implemented effectively.

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