The China Challenge

February 14, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: ChinaMilitaryXi JinpingGeopoliticsTechnology

The China Challenge

The United States needs to compete with China within international institutions and country-by-country. It is hard to beat something with nothing. America should promote better ideas and practices and offer attractive partnerships, instead of retreating and bullying.

Fourth, I pointed out in China in 2018 that no one had explained the motivation for Belt and Road: was it a geopolitical move? A plan to employ excess Chinese capacity to build infrastructure? A development project? My guess is all of the above. The idea that China could build out Eurasia with Chinese-style transport corridors may well be building debts, not sustainable development.

I suggested that China should apply higher standards and the global principles adopted by the AIIB to Belt and Road: transparency; anti-corruption; open procurement; careful environmental practices; and debt sustainability for partner countries. At last year’s Belt and Road Forum, President Xi seemed to begin embracing these ideas. The United States and other governments, as well as business groups, should follow up so that good intentions become better practices.

Fifth, China’s foreign and security policy has clearly moved beyond Deng Xiaoping’s adage of “Hide your strength, bide your time.” China wants military primacy in the western Pacific and perhaps across more-distant seas.

These goals, while disconcerting, should not be surprising. They merit a strategic, well-resourced, and consistent response. The United States needs closer ties with allies and partners and investments in our own capabilities.

America also needs to identify its key interests—such as freedom of navigation in principal sea-lanes and the ability to defend allies. The United States should calculate means and ends more carefully than it has done in recent decades, when Americans could operate with domain dominance all around the world.

Navy captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, writing about American strategy in the Asia-Pacific at the dawn of the twentieth century, expected power in the region to remain “debated and debatable.” In other words, the United States would need to compete, maneuver, and balance power with others. The U.S. government could benefit from Mahan’s historical and geopolitical perspective in the twenty-first century.

Mahan also wanted to boost U.S. trade with Asia. Tariffs, he wrote, were like “a modern ironclad that has heavy armor, but inferior engines and guns; mighty for defense, weak for offense.” Why have we adopted an ironclad trade policy?

The corollary of careful calculation of military missions and capabilities is a need for disciplined diplomacy. Even during a highpoint of U.S. power at the end of the Cold War, President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker mobilized allies, built coalitions, negotiated with partners, and communicated a restrained power that was all the more effective because others did not want to test America’s will.

Finally, my sixth point is that Xi Jinping’s leadership has prioritized the Communist Party and restricted openness and debate within China. When Xi assumed office in 2012, he commissioned a documentary film about the end of the Soviet Union to be shown to all Party cadres. A similar film in Europe would have hailed Mikhail Gorbachev as a hero who helped end the Cold War. Not so for the Chinese version: Gorbachev was the fool who abandoned the Communist Party, ruined his country, and led to the breakup of the Soviet Union. The not-so-subtle message was, “It won’t happen here.” The Soviet collapse continues to haunt China’s Communist leaders.

Having first met President Xi in 2006 when he was a provincial party secretary and having worked at the World Bank on China’s economic strategies, I had an opportunity to ask about Xi’s development priorities when he rose to the top. He answered, “the 86.68 million members of the Communist Party.” Xi’s reply was revealing about the man and the regime he leads: for Xi, China’s development depends on the strengthened leadership of the Party.

At the Central Committee’s recent Fourth Plenum last October, the public message revived the language of the Cultural Revolution: “Party, government, civilian, student—east, west, south, north, and center—the Party leads in all things.” That about sums it up.

The use of technology to control society—such as through facial recognition and social credit scores—strikes Americans as, to put it bluntly, creepy. Crackdowns in Tibet and Xinjiang add to a wider sense of internal oppression. China hurts itself by forging a role model for dystopian societies of intrusive technologies and reeducation camps.

The rule of law and openness upon which Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” model rests may topple or be trampled. If China crushes Hong Kong, China will wound itself—economically and psychologically—for a long time.

Americans have had a long tradition of missionary work in China—religious, educational, medical, and political. We have wanted the Chinese to be like us—through Christianity, commercialism, and republicanism. When the Chinese rejected our appeals—during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, the victory of the Communists in 1949, the Korean War of 1950–53, and the violent suppression in 1989—Americans pulled back with shock and anger.

I suggest that this time we stay steady without yielding our beliefs. Ronald Reagan championed a contest of ideas with the Soviet Union even as he sought cooperation to make the world safer.

The foundation of America’s appeal is our own story. We need to work on the America of the world’s imagination and aspiration. I am saddened when our leaders fail to appreciate that America’s practices should be examples and models, a founding principle dating back to America’s Revolutionary generation and then Abraham Lincoln.

We would be foolish to close off America to students, dreamers, immigrants, and ideas. We would be foolish to place all Chinese students who come to America, or even Chinese-Americans, our fellow countrymen and women, under a veil of suspicion. The United States will not win a competition by becoming more like China.

I CLOSED my remarks in 2005 urging China to become a “responsible stakeholder” by explaining that, “Freedom lies at the heart of what America is…” guided by our call for the “non-negotiable demands of dignity.”

I pointed out that our purpose in championing ideas and ideals was not “to weaken China.” Our goal, as President George W. Bush then stated it, has been “to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, make their own way.”

Then and now, I believe that “closed politics cannot be a permanent feature of Chinese society.” The close observer might perceive that China, like the Communist systems that preceded it, shows signs of stagnation. Its hesitations on market reforms and a more open society signal weakness, not strength. Controls on the free flow of information, local officials who hesitate to initiate in the face of unexpected events, and failures of public trust characterize China’s troubled response to the outbreak of the coronavirus. China’s future chapters are still to be written.

The challenges of U.S.-China relations fit poorly with bombast and tariff barrages. Frankly, the Trump administration itself seems divided. The principal negotiators have pressed for sales to China and greater openness; if successful, they would further economic integration. Others in the administration issue diplomatic indictments that can only lead to decoupling with China, even if officials eschew the word. Many in Congress and candidates in our elections are eager to show they will be tough and will confront China, too.

“Toughness” alone fails as policy if unconnected to objectives. The speeches of administration principals herald rivalry, but with no sense that the United States can shape China’s international behavior—whether through diplomacy, negotiation, competition, building coalitions to pressure Beijing, or deterrence.

The Chinese have listened. President Xi has reportedly told his politburo colleagues in closed sessions that they need to prepare for thirty years of sustained struggle with the United States. “Struggle” is China’s new watchword of strategy. China will reduce its vulnerabilities by taking steps to insulate China from American pressure and by building new partnerships around the world, even as Beijing increases national self-reliance, an old Chinese tradition.

China just agreed to the new Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, including with many Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) countries. I worked with Secretary Baker in 1989 to launch APEC, giving the United States an economic edge in the Asia-Pacific. Now America abandons the field, with serious consequences for U.S. relations with Southeast Asia—a dynamic region that will factor importantly in the twenty-first century.

As time passes, the United States loses friends and trust around the world. China maneuvers tactically with America and watches, probably with wry satisfaction, as the United States dissipates the international strengths it had built up over many decades.

Ask yourself: Can the United States really expect to deny China a place in the international system, with influence over rule-making? If we acknowledge China’s role as a power at the table, shouldn’t we urge China to assume responsibilities as a systemic stakeholder?

As Jeff Bader, a U.S.-Asia expert with decades of experience, observed recently, the U.S. challenge of influencing China’s behavior is no doubt harder than it was when I suggested the stakeholder approach in 2005. China is bigger, stronger, has had a good run, and sees less need to accede to standards of a West in disarray. We will have to face views we do not like.

Nevertheless, Bader added, our diplomacy should work out a global framework within which China can make adjustments to support systemic interests—instead of leaving China to break the international system or to pursue the risky cause of trying to create a conflicting international order.