America's 'China Consensus' Implodes

May 21, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: China

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.)

(Recommended: 5 Chinese Weapons of War America Should Fear)

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?

(Recommended: 5 Indian Weapons of War China Should Fear)

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.

(Recommended: 5 Russian Weapons of War America Should Fear)

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.

In the case of China, the United States has (and should) raise human rights and seek to ameliorate Chinese transgressions. But to lead U.S. policy with emphasis on democracy (aka regime change) would result in more repression from a paranoid and insecure CCP, with dissident voices targeted. In a complex, multidimensional Sino-American relationship, it would almost certainly make China less cooperative in other aspects of the relationship.

Moreover, in making its case, the Weekly Standard piece engages in fanciful historical revisionism, criticizing the Bush administration for not compelling Beijing to change its policies during the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising. This is a case of grossly overestimating U.S. leverage. Serving in the State Department’s East Asia bureau at the time, I recall the quashed hopes and frustration of the administration. Secret trips by then-Deputy Secretary of State Larry Eagleburger and NSC advisor Brent Scowcroft weathered criticism at the time, but sought to prevent things from spinning out of control. But I recall we were all-too aware of the limits of U.S. influence on the CCP.

But there are two even larger concerns about this idea, which plays to the deeply ingrained U.S. missionary impulse. One is the fantasy that a democratic China would “be like us,” rather than a nationalist rising power that like other major powers, would seek to bend the system to serve its interests; second is a seeming lack of confidence in our values. Do we have so little faith in the “soft power” of their universality that we have to impose them on others?

Yellow Submarine or Containment

Other entrants into the new Kennan sweepstakes have ranged from former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), recommending efforts from mysteriously working through differences and living happily ever after in an Asia-Pacific community on the one hand, to fashioning a new containment “grand strategy” on the other. That these are the conclusions of two major reports, both released in April, suggest the intellectual and political elite see U.S.-China policy is in dire need of rethinking.

Rudd calls for a “New Framework of Constructive Realism for Common Purpose.” It is a comprehensive analysis with many thoughtful, ambitious recommendations for updating regional and global institutions to accommodate China’s rise. But Rudd may be overestimating the degree to which there is a commonality of interests and underestimating nationalist pathologies in the both United States and China. It is difficult to envision developing joint positions on a panoply of issues from an East Asian security system to human rights, and not least, building a functioning Asia-Pacific Community as he advocates.

On the other hand, a more pessimistic Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) report calls for a new grand strategy to counter-balance China, in effect, containment, starting from the premise that “the American effort to ‘integrate’ China into the liberal international order has now generated new threats to U.S. primacy in Asia.” [as if U.S. policy, not China’s market reforms, were the driver]. As with Rudd’s report, the CFR report contains many sensible proposals, most building on current efforts to strengthen U.S. economic competitiveness, expand trade networks and security partnerships and intensify diplomacy with Beijing.

But given that China is the world’s largest creditor and trading nation and the largest trading partner of U.S. allies in the region, their recommendation of barring China from trade accords is preposterous and impractical—and reverses 200 years of U.S. support for open markets in Asia. Similarly, calls for a new technology control regime are unrealistic.

No Asian nation wants to be forced to choose between the United States and China, as the CFR report points out. But it then advocates policies that would do exactly that. And we saw in the AIIB episode that on economic issues, countries will not choose to exclude China. The CFR report sees fundamentally conflicting U.S. and Chinese strategies and seeks a stronger balance against China to maintain American primacy. The report either doesn’t accept or fails to address the question facing the United States: what larger Chinese role in the region and globally can America accept?

Regardless of which assessment is correct, there appears a growing view that the current U.S.-China relationship, one partly cooperative and partly competitive may not be sustainable. Whether Washington and Beijing can find pathways that tilt the relationship more toward the cooperative than the competitive elements of the relationship is really part of a larger challenge facing the United States: how to accommodate U.S. interests to a transforming world in a static international system but an increasingly polycentric world where power is diffused.  But as we enter Silly Season, with 19 Republican candidates and counting, don’t hold your breath.