Other Western leaders have followed suit. In 2005 British prime minister Tony Blair announced that there was an “unstoppable momentum” towards democracy in China. And only last year Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop echoed a version of this mindset when she told an audience in Singapore—with China squarely in her sights—that “history also shows democracy and democratic institutions are essential for nations if they are to reach their economic potential.” Never mind, of course, that democracy might also prompt an even more intense form of Chinese nationalism, a development that would hardly be in the strategic interests of U.S. allies in Asia.
THERE ARE signs of late, however, that America is beginning to face up to the collapse of the core assumptions shaping its approach to China. While this reassessment has been going on for some time amongst academics and commentators, it has been rare for senior policymakers to publicly do so.
In Foreign Affairs , two senior Asia officials from the Obama administration, Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner, concede the flawed foundations of U.S.-China policy. They confess that there is a need for a “China reckoning,” a recognition that the underlying beliefs driving U.S. policy “have started to look increasingly tenuous” and that the “gap between American expectations and Chinese realities” has grown. In short, the conviction that U.S. power and hegemony could “readily mould China to the United States” has been shown to have feet of clay. Far from cultivating a greater political openness in China, both the liberalization of trade and the IT revolution have been used as tools for the imposition of greater Chinese state control. Rifling through the back catalogue of the relationship over the past half-century, the authors discern America’s China dream consistently falling short, dashed against the rocks of Beijing’s relentless rise.
Their accounting for this failure, however, is altogether too easy.
First, Campbell and Ratner argue that America’s “strategic distraction” in the Middle East since 9/11, along with the global financial crisis and the perception that the United States is in decline, has allowed China to steal the march on the United States in Asia and elsewhere. Second, a suite of Trump policies, they say, look set to compound the problem by locking Washington into a confrontational international stance at the very time that China is showing itself to be “increasingly competitive without being confrontational.” The clear implication is that if only the United States had not been a victim of cruel circumstance at the turn of the century, and if only it now had a president embodying the same commitment to benevolent American globalism as those before him, the calculus in U.S.-China relations might perhaps be quite different.
Crucially, Campbell and Ratner argue that Washington also needs to focus more on its own “power and behaviour.” They know that a dose of humility is in order, that the “hopeful thinking” of transforming China can no longer shape America’s Asian strategy.
What they fail to acknowledge, however, is the pervasive influence of American nationalist mythology on U.S.-China policy over the last seventy years. Their argument is replete with references to America’s “expectations,” “aspirations,” “faith” and “optimism” over what China might become, but at no stage do they pause to give serious consideration to either the sources or origins of such American thinking. Arguably, getting to grips with the influence of these deep-seated beliefs is the harder task, since it requires its own reckoning with the very essence of America’s national identity.
In similar fashion, Aaron Friedberg, formerly Asian affairs adviser to Republican vice president Dick Cheney, argues that the sources of U.S. failure on its China policy can be put down largely to the “resilience” and “ruthlessness” of the Chinese Communist Party. That may be so, but intriguingly, Friedberg characterizes the American and Western leaders’ hope that engagement would “tame and transform” Beijing as akin to a “gamble.” In doing so, he, like Campbell and Ratner, effectively plays down the powerful ideological roots of America’s China vision.
THE FORMAL responses to Campbell and Ratner’s article reveal traces of the same blind spots. Thus, the former U.S. ambassador to China, J. Stapleton Roy, makes a rigid distinction between the use of values in justifying American policies and the hard-headed national interests that formulate them. Dismissing entirely what he refers to as “gauzy dreams of democracy” in U.S. rhetoric towards China and the “false premise” that U.S. policy was intended to “remake China in the United States’ image,” Roy nevertheless is not immune to the impulse of American exceptionalism and its capacity to shape the kind of China Washington wants. Echoing Robert Zoellick’s desire for Beijing to act as a “responsible stakeholder’ in the international system, Roy contends that a responsibly behaved Washington can still “balance China’s growing strength and foster its peaceful rise.” Having denounced the idealism of previous policymakers he nevertheless reveals a certain susceptibility to the very same motives. Washington, he writes, needs to recapture its global leadership role by emphasizing that “U.S. policies seek the common good, not simply the good of the United States.” Woodrow Wilson could hardly have put it any better.
Thomas Christensen and Patricia Kim are even more effusive in proposing:
“...the United States should continue encouraging Chinese leaders to seek political stability and greater prosperity through more liberty and freer markets. The United States can do this in two ways: by getting its own house in order to set an example that inspires Chinese citizens and elites and by continuing to try to persuade Chinese leaders at all levels that political and economic reform will produce more stability and wealth than will doubling down on statist economics and authoritarianism.”
Like Roy, and indeed Campbell and Ratner, the assumption here is that if America had a president committed to the ethic of American globalism, the state of play in the U.S.-China relationship would be much more to America’s advantage. Such a view also taps into the same kinds of exceptionalist myths about the United States as the model for China, the guiding hand overseeing a teleological progression towards greater democratic liberalization and reform. In short, Christensen and Kim envisage a China that is remade in the American image, harking back to precisely the kind of approach that dominated U.S. thinking on China from the 1970s. Nevertheless, they do highlight the real dilemma faced by the Chinese leadership, namely how to maintain its tight authoritarian grip at the same time as allowing the market to more freely allocate resources.
THOUGH THEY do not define it in these terms, what Campbell and Ratner in effect are tilting against is a longstanding American nationalist view of how China ought ultimately to behave. This has deep roots in the history of the U.S.-China relationship, dating at least back to the late nineteenth century when growing numbers of Americans first encountered China. These Americans, as historian Michael Hunt showed some time ago, might have reinforced earlier stereotypes of the Chinese as “weak, vulnerable and backward,” but they also at the same time envisaged what China “might become under the patronage of American diplomacy and the invigorating influence of American finance, trade and mission work.” That particular image of China “appealed powerfully to their countrymen, ever on the lookout for an arena to exercise their greatness and conditioned to expect the westward flow of civilisation.” The Open Door Policy has often been characterized as the epitome of this American special relationship with China—a resolute Uncle Sam preventing the wanton economic carve up of the Middle Kingdom by ruthless European imperialists.
So powerful was this American image of China that, by 1935, when the Assistant Secretary of State John Van Antwerp MacMurray, himself a former U.S. minister to China in the late 1920s, came to write an assessment of the East Asian situation following Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, he felt compelled to underline the residual hold of such attachments. America’s ongoing sentimental attitudes toward China, he wrote, were
“based upon rather naïve and romantic assumptions… upon a somewhat patronising pride in the belief that our Government had borne the part of China against selfish nations, but still more upon the fact that our church organisations had through several generations cultivated a favorable interest in China in support of their missionary enterprises therein.”
MacMurray’s memorandum is highlighted in an insightful new analysis of George Kennan’s approach to East Asia by former intelligence analyst Paul Heer.