Americans have a tendency to take China's rise personally. Not only is it an affront to our power, but it is an attack on our values, our ideas for what it takes a society to progress, and our rocky international domination. It becomes easy for us to substitute rhetoric for reality.
We democracy advocates, for example, always seem to have difficulties coming to grips with China's extraordinary economic growth under an authoritarian, repressive government. That is not supposed to happen. Only free countries can produce sustained growth. It must be a fluke-a thirty year aberration. After all, the Communist Party is inevitably doomed, because of China's huge income disparities, the growing tide of unemployment and popular discontent, the aging of its population, the inability to continue rapid economic growth, the vast expansion of intellectual freedom provided by the internet, the rigidities of communist rule and numerous other reasons. But before Beijing's rulers get their day of reckoning, we'd appreciate it if they ensure the Chinese people get the world more quickly out of recession by reducing their savings and vastly increasing their consumption.
In the time before party rule ends, China still continues to grow in international influence, despite its abysmal politics and moral lapses. It does not seem right that China has become East Asia's engine of growth and the source of funding for American consumption. China's management of its currency, its expanding activities throughout the world, and its enormous importance in confronting global warming are all issues that have gained tabloid prominence. Our policies have become a blend of grudging acceptance and moral dismay, the latter usually diminishing as practical economic or strategic considerations take over.
Of course, one day we will witness the fall of the party for some of the reasons above and more. What happens in China when the communist government is swept away is very murky at best. It is too hard to figure out what this enormous country of 1.3 billion people will look like. It could turn out to be something of a disaster for the world, so we should be careful what we wish for.
Today, the United States and many of its friends repeatedly express their concern not only about the nature of the Chinese state but also about many of its policies-from undervaluing its currency, to the growth of its military expenditures, to Beijing's failures to confront such terrible governments as Sudan, Burma and North Korea. All this has produced a new doctrine designed to change the domestic and foreign policies of the Chinese government and better integrate China into the world: if China wants to be a real player in the world it must become a "responsible stakeholder." It can do this by accepting the basic benign policies and international standards of the United States and other mostly Western governments. Acceptance of this doctrine will enable China to have good relations with the present managing partner of the world. This way of swaying political thinking in China has received enormous praise, at least from many of America's China specialists and more quietly in U.S. government circles.
Even without being warned of its need to be a responsible stakeholder, Beijing has made clear it wants no trouble with Washington but rather seeks to deepen its relations with us. Indeed, those relations have blossomed over the past decade, even too much so for some American conservatives. China acknowledges it shares many interests with the U.S., from the fight against the Taliban to cooperating in getting out of the recession.
Regrettably, China still marches to its own drummer on numerous contested issues, indicating its indifference about being a responsible stakeholder. In fact it has begun to raise questions as to whether the U.S., itself, is more managing partner and less responsible stakeholder in allowing its financial system to trigger the world recession. And in a bit of lése majesté China keeps raising the issue of a new international currency to replace the dollar.
Beijing may also feel a little smug when American policy shifts more toward China's position, as it has with the Sudan. Resolving the Darfur tragedy and keeping north and south Sudan together are now seen as best accomplished by seeking the cooperation of the Sudanese government instead of its destruction, however terrible the behavior of that government has been. Similarly, it is not unreasonable for China to expect the Obama administration to "engage" the Burmese government, as China has long called for. For a new government that articulates the need to engage all bad governments there is no easy explanation for leaving out Burma.
We don't have to and should not abandon our alliances, ideals, exhortations-impossible for the most narcissistic country in the world-or our efforts to change China's polices and confront them when we believe fundamental interests are at stake. It simply requires us-however difficult psychologically-to recognize that China is becoming a managing partner in the world, at least until its government falls. Pursuing greater cooperation with Beijing will be a matter of real consultation and bargaining, not simply a matter of telling it how to perform as a responsible stakeholder.
Morton Abramowitz is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation.