America's 'China Consensus' Implodes

With China challenging the U.S.-led regional framework in Asia, Americans are being forced to reconsider long-standing assumptions.

In recent weeks a tsunami of papers, reports and articles have surfaced calling for a rethinking of U.S. policy toward China. They veer in all policy directions from reconciling differences and forming an Asia-Pacific community, to containment and confrontation. But they all reflect a troubling epiphany that has seized attention from policy-watchers: core assumptions that have guided a bipartisan China policy for eight presidencies, from Nixon to Obama are unraveling. One prominent China scholar has even boldly pronounced that we are witnessing is “the beginning of the end of the Chinese Communist Party.”

Though the Nixon opening was a strategic counter to the USSR, as China reformed and modernized its economy post-1979, U.S. policy has assumed that as a Chinese middle class grew, political reform, if not democratization would follow. This has been the case across Asia over the past three decades—in the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Mongolia, Thailand and Indonesia. It may eventually occur—China is, by several orders of magnitude larger than other Asian democratized states with a 3,000-year-old culture—but in its own way and on its own timeline. For now, the Communist Party has tightened political control.

A related assumption has been that as China integrated itself into the globalized economic and political system, Beijing, which has been a principal beneficiary of the U.S.-led system, would see its interests best served by being a “responsible stakeholder” in that system, one that would not be static, but adapt to new economic realities. When then Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, a realist, raised this idea in 2005, it was a reasonable notion -- China’s economy was five times smaller than it is now ($10.3 trillion in 2014.)

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A variant is the “liberal institutionalist” school of international relations theory which assumes, as one leading scholar has written, that, “unlike the imperial system of the past, the Western order is built around rules and norms of nondiscrimination and market openness, creating conditions for rising states to advance their expanding economic and political goals within it.

This argument might be partially true if the Bretton Woods institutions were not so inert and reformed to adapt to new economic realities. However, Beijing’s launch of the AIIB, one of a score of parallel economic and political/security institutions that China is pursuing as a hedging strategy, points to the shortcomings of this view. Even if it is integrated or not, why would Beijing simply accept rules it didn’t write? It shouldn’t be a surprise that China acts like a great power, and seeks to skew the system to serve its interests?

Wither China Policy?

The realization that things are not going as the United States expected is leading many in the policy community to frantically cast about for an alternative China strategy. One recent entry into the China policy sweepstakes was a piece in the Weekly Standard proposing a “new” China strategy—Democracy promotion with explicit support for anti-regime elements. This tends to be the default neocon approach to most unpleasant regimes. Never mind that it is littered with failures. Why let reality get in the way of an ideologically satisfying theory?

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In the case of China, it is a textbook example of what not to do, and would likely be spectacularly unsuccessful. First, it would reinforce Beijing’s victim narrative: that the United States seeks to undermine its rise. Second, it is ahistorical, ignoring the U.S. policy experience in Asia over the past thirty years, an approach with impressive democratization results.

With the U.S. alliance system and forward deployed presence underpinning a stable East Asian security environment, relatively open markets, investments and aid, U.S. policy helped enable the Asian economic miracle. Successful export-led growth in turn propelled first Japan, then the “Asian Tigers (South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong) to take off, followed by other ASEAN states.

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In the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Mongolia, Thailand, and Indonesia, political transformations occurred organically when the situation was ripe in each instance. The United States did not seek to be the “invisible hand” guiding these processes, and either had no direct role or, in the cases of the Philippines and South Korea, gave well-timed 11th hour nudges that helped tip the balance. In no case did the United States ostentatiously employ democracy promotion to fast-forward history as a leading policy tool.