This idea, dubbed the “Soothing Scenario” by James Mann, had the virtue of appealing to Americans’ deep-seated belief that their form of government is both morally desirable and universally desired. It reflected the immense ideological optimism of the post–Cold War moment, and was well attuned to the best social-science literature on the relationship between prosperity and democracy, and between democracy and peace. Not least, it was useful in providing assurance that Americans could deepen their commercial engagement with China—and enjoy the vast economic rewards that engagement brought—without forsaking either their moral values or their national-security interests. For if it was true, as Bill Clinton argued, that “the choice between economic rights and human rights, between economic security and national security, is a false one,” then Americans need not confront the choice at all.
As reasonable as this idea may initially have seemed, however, over time it has become steadily harder to defend. China has not moved toward democracy over the past quarter century, even as its national wealth, per capita wealth and integration into the global economy have shot upward. Chinese leaders, rather, have used prosperity to buy legitimacy while also ruthlessly but skillfully repressing dissent. According to the Polity IV dataset, China is just as authoritarian as it has been for decades—and the human-rights crackdowns, repression of civil society and centralization of power under Xi Jinping indicate that the regime is actually becoming less liberal. China may still eventually become a democracy, and it is conceivable, as Sinologist David Shambaugh argues, that increasing authoritarianism is actually an anxious response to pressures from below. Yet it is doubtful that China will become a democracy before it grows powerful enough to severely disrupt the international order. The United States has long felt it had the luxury of effectively underwriting the growth of a potentially dangerous authoritarian power, because that power would not remain authoritarian indefinitely. That wager no longer seems so promising today.
NEITHER DOES a second wager—that Beijing will become a “responsible stakeholder.” Since the late 1980s, U.S. officials have believed—correctly—that China’s assistance is critical to addressing an array of global problems, from trade disputes and piracy to terrorism and climate change. Likewise, there has been a bipartisan consensus that the United States can best obtain China’s help on these issues, and moderate Chinese behavior more broadly, by drawing Beijing into the international system and demonstrating that it can gain wealth, power and respect by accepting its rules.
This idea gained its name in 2005, when Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick announced that America ultimately wanted a China that would “work with us to sustain the international system that has enabled its success.” Yet its origins date to the Clinton and even George H. W. Bush years. In 1989, Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger argued that the United States could gain China’s cooperation on weapons proliferation and other important issues only if it refrained from isolating that country after the Tiananmen massacre. It was already clear, Madeleine Albright agreed in 1997, that
“China will be a rising force in Asian and world affairs. The history of this century teaches us the wisdom of trying to bring such a power into the fold as a responsible participant in the international system, rather than driving it out into the wilderness of isolation.”
As a result, U.S. officials have worked energetically over a quarter century to enable China’s integration into the global economy, on the theory that a rich China would be a satisfied China, and that globalization would foster lucrative relationships that Beijing would be loath to disrupt. At the same time, both Democratic and Republican administrations have consistently sought to give Beijing a greater voice in world affairs, by bringing it into international diplomatic forums and encouraging it to play a larger role in security and political issues in the Asia-Pacific and globally.
The responsible-stakeholder policy was not naive in the context in which it developed. There was little international or domestic support for a policy of isolating Beijing, except perhaps in the immediate aftermath of Tiananmen, and it was inconceivable that the United States would not at least try to integrate the world’s most populous country into the broader global order. In some respects, that integration has undoubtedly occurred: China’s economy is far more globalized, and its participation in international diplomacy is far more extensive than at the end of the Cold War. Likewise, there are ways in which the policy has arguably succeeded. China has, on several important occasions, cooperated with U.S. policy objectives. It supported the indefinite extension of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty in the 1990s; it assisted, albeit reluctantly, in the economic isolation of Iran during the dispute over that country’s nuclear program; and during the late Obama years it participated in groundbreaking international diplomacy to curb climate change. More recently, China has even styled itself as the defender of multilateralism and globalization in response to the parochial nationalism of Donald Trump.
After more than two decades of experience, however, the limitations of the responsible stakeholder have also come into view. In particular, it is evident that China is at best a selective stakeholder, and that the core goal of this policy—persuading Beijing to define its national interests as America might like them to be defined—is probably unachievable.
Beijing has never been willing to alter what it perceives to be its most crucial national-security interests to suit Washington’s concept of global order; witness the unending, and continually unavailing, U.S. efforts to obtain the desired level of Chinese cooperation in pressuring North Korea over its nuclear weapons and missile programs. Worse still, China does not seem to have moderated its behavior, or fundamentally bought into the U.S.-led international system, as it has grown more powerful. If anything, its expansionist tendencies in the South China Sea and East China Sea; its efforts to bully neighbors along its maritime and territorial peripheries; its increasingly frequent resorts to diplomatic, economic and paramilitary coercion; its harassment of U.S. military aircraft and vessels in international waters; its ongoing military buildup; and many other actions tell a different story. Such behavior, Aaron Friedberg observes, compels us “to re-examine the pleasing assumption that the country is fast on its way to becoming a status quo power.” Even where China has benefited from the existing system, in fact, it has frequently declined to play by the rules. Xi Jinping may be a rhetorical champion of free trade and globalization, but Chinese economic policies often tend toward the protectionist and mercantilist.
When Chinese commentators speak of “Asia for Asians,” when Chinese leaders demand that its neighbors show greater deference to Chinese prerogatives, when China continually seeks to undermine U.S. alliances and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific, one thinks not of a “responsible stakeholder” but of a proud and ambitious nation determined to bend the system to its liking. Nothing could be more normal; this is how rising powers usually behave. And so, as China’s power continues to grow relative to America’s, one should only expect Beijing to become less, rather than more, accommodating. U.S. leaders should certainly continue to engage China on issues where cooperation is possible. But the idea that China will simply accept the international order that America designed is an illusion that must be punctured.
WASHINGTON WOULD also do well to part with a third shibboleth: that hostility toward China will be met in kind. Since the 1990s, U.S. officials have ritualistically averred that China is at an inflection point in its relationship with the outside world, and that America must refrain from behavior that will incline Beijing to strident nationalism and hostility. Treat China as a friend, the thinking goes, and it may become a friend. Treat it as a threat or rival, and it will surely reciprocate. “If you treat China as an enemy, China will become an enemy,” remarked Joseph Nye, who served as assistant secretary of defense, in the 1990s. “It will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
This concept, too, has endured across administrations: one can find numerous examples of officials from the George W. Bush and Obama eras voicing the same sentiment. “We don’t want to fence them in,” said Adm. Timothy Keating, then the commander of U.S. Pacific Command, in 2008. “We want to draw them out . . . and assure them we mean them no ill will.”
This is a noble sentiment, and one that was never entirely misplaced. It was originally meant to prevent a security dilemma in which actions taken by one country to protect its own interests seem threatening to another country, triggering a spiral of hostility and leading ultimately to conflict. It reflected an accurate perception that the prospects for international peace and stability would improve dramatically if China and the United States could avoid antagonism. And in the 1990s, at a time when China was still relatively weak and American dominance was unchallenged, it made sense to go the extra mile in trying to reassure Beijing that Washington did not think the relationship was destined for conflict. In recent years, however, the problems and limitations of this concept have become painfully apparent.