Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

Ten years ago the journalist James Mann published a book called The China Fantasy, in which he criticized American policymakers for using something he called “the Soothing Scenario” to justify the policy of diplomatic and economic engagement with China. According to this view, China’s exposure to the benefits of globalization would lead the country to embrace democratic institutions and support the American-led world order. Instead, Mann predicted, China would remain an authoritarian country, and its success would encourage other authoritarian regimes to resist pressures to change.1

Mann’s prediction turned out to be true. China took advantage of the growing potential of unrestricted global commerce to emerge as the number one trading nation and the second-largest economy in the world. It is the top trading partner of every other country in Asia, not least because of its crucial position assembling parts that have been produced elsewhere in the region. Sixty-four countries have joined China’s One Belt One Road (2

These signs of confusion in American policy have accelerated the growth of China’s economic and political influence. In Asia, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte softened the previous Filipino administration’s position on its South China Sea territorial dispute with China and accepted a large Chinese trade and investment package; Malaysian leader Najib Razak agreed to the first purchase of Chinese vessels for his navy; Korean voters selected a new president, Moon Jae-in, who has promised closer relations with Beijing; and Vietnam has stepped up diplomatic and military relations with China.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has stuck to the American alliance, but if US policy continues to show weakness, Japan will ultimately face a choice either of compromising with China’s territorial claims in the East China Sea or of rearming itself more heavily, perhaps even with nuclear weapons. According to Graham Allison, director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, in his new book Destined for War, “As far ahead as the eye can see, the defining question about global order is whether China and the US can escape Thucydides’s Trap,” which he defines as a likely war between a dominant power and a rising power.

Two other recent books, however, while approaching the subject in very different ways, suggest that China is not as threatening as many commentators would have us believe. Michael Auslin, a research fellow at the conservative Hoover Institute, declares the end of the Asian Century before it has much begun, because leading Asian countries, including China, have not adopted the business-friendly economic practices, pro-democracy political reforms, and cooperative regional institutions that would enable them effectively to rival the West. Oliver Stuenkel, a Brazilian academic more on the left, argues instead that the emergence of China and other Asian powers is an accomplished fact that cannot be reversed, but that the power shift does not present a serious threat to Western interests. Although both books discuss all of Asia, China is central to their arguments.

Auslin’s analysis is grounded in the contested set of ideas that used to be called the Washington Consensus—the belief that free markets, free trade, and political democracy are necessary for economies to grow and political systems to be stable. Since the Chinese approach disregards this theory, Auslin thinks the country will stumble before it seriously challenges American preeminence. He sees many problems in the Chinese economy, including the excessive number and size of state-owned enterprises, opaque corporate governance, huge government debt (200 percent of 3 This may be true, but the same prediction has been made so often for decades that it is hard to be convinced by it now. By seeing the Chinese regime and other Asian political systems like Thailand, Myanmar, and Malaysia that haven’t developed Western-style governments as examples of “unfinished revolutions,” Auslin commits the fallacy of conflating political stability with democratization.

Unlike Auslin, Stuenkel does not believe that Chinese power will fade, but he sees China’s ambitions as more economic than military. It is true that China has built and fortified sand islands in the South China Sea, increased its allocation of troops to UN peacekeeping operations in Africa, established a small naval base in Djibouti, used Chinese naval forces to evacuate some 36,000 Chinese workers from Libya, and dispatched ships to participate in the multilateral anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden.

But in Stuenkel’s view, these efforts are not likely to lead to the creation of a US-style global military empire. It would be difficult for China to defend its far-flung, fragile network of economic interests by chiefly military power. China’s enormous investments in resources and infrastructure abroad can pay off only if peace is maintained across these turbulent regions by political means, including respect for international law. According to Stuenkel, China wants nothing more than to preserve the main elements of the world trading order from which it has benefited so much, while gaining greater influence in the institutions that enforce and develop this order.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump; drawing by James Ferguson

Because the US Congress refused until recently to authorize increased voting rights for China in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund—and, one might add, because China accumulated a huge stock of foreign exchange that it needed to invest—Beijing set out to create what Stuenkel calls a “parallel order” of international economic institutions. He identifies twenty-two newly created multilateral institutions, ranging from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific, in which China is a participant and usually the leading member.

Stuenkel argues these are “parallel” rather than “alternative” institutions: they provide infrastructure investment, regulate trade, facilitate international payments, and carry out security and diplomatic dialogues in much the same way as similar Western-dominated institutions that they parallel. They operate according to rules that are consistent with existing institutions in the same fields, and their participants continue simultaneously as members of the older institutions. In Stuenkel’s view, their creation is a good thing:

[They] will provide additional platforms for cooperation (among both non-Western and between non-Western and Western powers), and spread the burden of contributing global public goods [such as UN peacekeeping operations, anti-piracy patrols, and the control of climate change] more evenly…. All these institutions will deepen China’s integration into the global economy, possibly reducing the risk of conflict, and lifting all boats.

Auslin and Stuenkel both present, to use James Mann’s phrase, “soothing scenarios”: either China’s rise will stall before it poses a serious threat to American interests, or it will bring new vitality to the existing international order. But both are too optimistic. Although China’s rate of growth has slowed from double digits to an official annual rate (which some economists think is exaggerated) of 6.7 percent in 2016, and will slow further as the economy matures, few believe it will fall below 3 percent in the foreseeable future.

As Stuenkel points out, at that rate it will inevitably overtake the US economy, even if the US were to accelerate its own rate of growth, simply because China’s population is four times as big as America’s. In a few more decades, China’s economy will be twice as big as that of the US. An economic or political crisis, if it occurs, can slow China’s rise, but China is not going back to the poverty of the pre-reform era.

Stuenkel is persuasive in arguing that Beijing cares chiefly about political stability at home and economic access abroad, and not about promoting its authoritarian political model to the rest of the world. Nor do China’s leaders seek, as some have suggested, to expel the United States from Asia, or to “rule the world.” They are, however, pursuing two goals that clash fundamentally with important American interests (leaving aside China’s abuse of the US–China economic relationship, which is a problem that can be gradually resolved through negotiations).

The first is its effort to alter the military balance in Asia. Along its long, exposed coastline, China is confronted with a string of American allies and partners: South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam. There are some 60,000 American troops deployed in the area, and American bases in Guam and Pearl Harbor command the Pacific. Just beyond the line twelve nautical miles from the Chinese coast that defines its sovereign “territorial waters,” the US Seventh Fleet conducts regular intelligence-gathering and surveillance operations. Along its land borders China likewise confronts American deployments, alliances, and military cooperation arrangements—in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia, Mongolia, and India.

With China’s power rising, its rulers no longer accept being so tightly hemmed in. They are now in a position to press South Korea to reverse the deployment of an American Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (4

The difficulty with such proposals is that Beijing is likely to interpret them as asking it to accept an intrusive American presence just when the shifting power balance should allow that situation to be corrected. And on the US side, yielding preemptively to Chinese ambitions would destroy its credibility with all of its allies, not only in Asia but elsewhere as well. The resulting destabilization would not serve American or Chinese interests.

Auslin’s recommendations for managing the rise of China are for the US to strengthen its military presence in the region; build additional links—such as with India and Indonesia—on top of its existing alliance system; and intensify American pressures for democratic transformation. It should stick to these policies, he says, until “China’s leaders…come to appreciate the benefits of constructive engagement.” This is a grand vision that faces three obstacles—the lack of consistency across administrations in Washington needed to implement such a strategy; the unwillingness of countries like India, Indonesia, and even our formal allies South Korea and Japan to tilt so conspicuously against the largest and still-growing regional power; and the unlikelihood that China would come to accept this American posture as beneficial.

For his part, Stuenkel recommends that the United States enlarge the participation of the rising powers in existing institutions so they have a fair share of influence, encourage China and other rising powers to contribute even more to global public goods such as UN peacekeeping operations, anti-piracy patrols, and the control of climate change, and “fully embrace, rather than criticize or try to isolate” the new parallel economic institutions that China is creating. These are constructive ideas, but they do not address the core problems of regional security and human rights.

The US should cooperate with China in those areas where common interests exist, such as nonproliferation and climate change (the position of the Trump administration notwithstanding). And the US must push steadily to open the Chinese economy on a reciprocal basis—an effort that would have been greatly aided by staying in the TPP. But in order to respond successfully to China’s growing military power, the US must hold the line firmly where strategic interests clash, such as over Taiwan and the US naval presence in the South China Sea. Above all, the US must defend international standards of human rights and freedoms more strongly than it has in recent years; it makes no sense to defer to the loudly voiced sensitivities of the Chinese regime even as China interferes more and more often in our freedoms. Competition, friction, and testing between the United States and China are unavoidable, probably for decades. To navigate this process, the US needs an accurate assessment of China’s interests, but even more of its own.

  1. 1

    James Mann, The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression (Viking, 2007). ↩

  2. 2

    John Ruwitch, “Activist Probing Factories Making Ivanka Trump Shoes in China Arrested: Group,” Reuters, May 31, 2017. ↩

  3. 3

    David Shambaugh, China’s Future (Polity, 2016). ↩

  4. 4

    For example, James Steinberg and Michael E. O’Hanlon, Strategic Reassurance and Resolve: US–China Relations in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton University Press, 2014), and Lyle J. Goldstein, Meeting China Halfway: How to Defuse the Emerging US–China Rivalry (Georgetown University Press, 2015). ↩