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China’s Unknown Political Future (September 2015): China and the World

By Xiaofei Li

China and the World

Understanding China and predicting its likely evolution has been high on the US foreign relations agenda.  There are generally two types of opinions regarding China’s rise in the world: “China peace” and “China threat.”  In China Rising: Peace, Power, and Order in East Asia, David C. Kang argues convincingly that China’s aspirational rise will contribute to the stability of the East Asian region.  Kang argues that East Asian states perceive China’s rise as more advantageous than dangerous to them; these states believe this dynamic geopolitical shift in the Asia Pacific area makes the region more stable, not less.  Even though East Asian nations are not unambiguously agreeable to China in all respects, they are willing to defer judgment regarding China’s role.  Consequently, most countries in East Asia have moved to reinforce their economic, diplomatic, and military ties with China.

Jenny Clegg is another supporter of the “China peace” argument even though in a less conspicuous fashion.  In her China’s Global Strategy: Toward a Multipolar World, Clegg argues that China is taking a multilateral approach, aiming to establish the institutional basis for a multipolar world.  Although its multipolar diplomacy primarily aims to restrain the US vision of unipolar primacy, China provides genuine assistance to the developing countries, which, along with its international consensus-building efforts, will lead to a more peaceful and equitable world.

Sharing a similarly positive view toward China, Randall Peerenboom, in China Modernizes: Threat to the West or Model for the Rest?, shows that Beijing’s resolve to keep its cultural and political integrity sets it against the normative values of the West.  Peerenboom further suggests that since the East Asian Model (EAM) has served China well, other countries may also learn from China’s experiences.  The book furthermore points out the frequently hypocritical position of the international community as a result of its double standards in dealing with issues regarding other countries.

Distinct from the general trend in the discipline of international relations, Soft Power: China’s Emerging Strategy in International Politics addresses China’s status in the world from a unique angle.  This collection results from a conference in Singapore held in October 2007; Mingjiang Li has edited this collection of papers from scholars on Chinese soft power.  The concept of soft power, introduced by Joseph Nye in 1990, is defined against hard power, which often involves threat and coercion.  Soft power, in contrast, is attraction, persuasion, and a desire for cooperation, which comes from the appeal of culture, political values, and foreign policies.  As a number of authors discuss in their articles, while China takes pride in deriving its soft power from rich culture, history, and tradition, China’s own political values diminish its soft power.  The book thus pulls together the views of prominent specialists to show the main strengths and weaknesses of China’s soft power, and how that soft power is applied in China’s international politics.  For that reason, this edited volume is the first systematic and scholarly evaluation of China’s soft power, which still provides a neutral opinion toward China’s rise and its consequences.

Continuing Mingjiang Li’s balanced position, Christopher Patten, the last British colonial governor of Hong Kong, in East and West: China, Power and the Future of Asia, firmly dismisses the idea of China being “unique” owing to its size, history, and civilization.  In fact, he describes the CCP as a “sunset party.”  Although Pattern supports China’s entry to the WTO, he disapproves of “bending the rules for China.”  One of Patten’s key points is “don’t exaggerate the China threat or China market,” and he suggests that the West adopt a more practical, balanced approach to China.  Given his fairly negative experiences dealing with Beijing officials in colonial Hong Kong, Patten’s argument that there is no need for the West to kowtow to Beijing in diplomacy should not surprise the reader.

Probably the most objective and sage advice for coping with China is from Dr. Henry Kissinger, a former US secretary of state and national security adviser, who holds an intimate, firsthand knowledge of several generations of Chinese leaders.  In On China, Kissinger argues that a conflict in the future US-Chinese relation is a choice, not a necessity.  According to Kissinger, China’s rise is not that intimidating for several reasons.  First, “the rise of China is less the result of its increased military strength than of the United States’ own declining competitive position,” he says.  Second, it would be unusual if the world’s second-largest economy did not translate its economic power into increased military capacity.  Third, “China’s imperial expansion has historically been achieved by osmosis rather than conquest.”  Another reason for Chinese constraint is the domestic challenges the country faces.  As Kissinger put it in On China, “Americans would do well to remember that even when China’s GDP is equal to that of the United States, it will need to be distributed over a population that is four times as large.… The practical consequence is that a great deal of China’s energy will still be devoted to domestic needs.”  Thus, Kissinger points out, “what Washington must not do is combine a defense policy based on budgetary restraints with diplomacy based on unlimited ideological aims.”  Likewise, an organized scheme to transform China’s establishments by either diplomatic pressure or economic sanctions, in Kissinger’s view, is unlikely to work either.  What China’s situation calls for, Kissinger believes, is not “an abandonment of American values but a distinction between the realizable and the absolute.”  To maintain peaceful relations, as Kissinger argues, “both sides must understand the nuances by which apparently traditional and apparently reasonable courses can evoke the deepest worries of the other.  “They should,” Kissinger carries on, “seek together to define the sphere in which their peaceful competition is circumscribed.  If that is managed wisely, both military confrontation and domination can be avoided; if not, escalating tension is inevitable.”  In the end, Kissinger concludes, “China and the United States will not necessarily transcend the ordinary operations of great-power rivalry.  But they owe it to themselves, and the world, to make an effort to do so.”

Although it may not strike readers as profoundly as Kissinger’s On China does, Martin Jacques’s When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order is still impressive.  First published in 2009, the book has sold a quarter-million copies; it has been translated into eleven languages and nominated for two major literary awards.  With remarkable prescience, Martin Jacques points to the decline of American hegemony, highlights specific elements of China’s rising, and describes how these will probably influence international order in the future.  Although Jacques is unclear what a new Chinese-led international order might look like, he manages to imagine a world in which China’s distinctive kind of modernity will have a significant influence on people’s outlooks for household, work, and government.  This impact will offset and eventually reverse the course of Westernization.  China may not transform into a Western democracy, however; its self-confidence, the author suggests, may help China project its political and cultural identity.  Written in a compelling way, this intriguing book is full of intrepid and credible predictions and insights, for which readers will long remember it.

In The Beijing Consensus: How China’s Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the Twenty-First Century, Stefan Halper offers an assessment that implicitly accords with the “China threat” theme and argues that China’s illiberal model is rapidly replacing the Washington Consensus.  Halper demonstrates that China’s intentions for international involvement are to build a new Beijing Consensus by offering no-condition-attached loans.  Beijing’s vision is inimical to liberal values as the West is promoting democracy through economic aid.  In a dispassionate view, Halper perceives little possibility of a genuine partnership between China and the US due to the competition between China’s authoritarian capitalism and the West’s democratic ideal.  And so, China’s market-authoritarian model enters a “battle of ideas” with the Western democratic norm.  The book—following Martin Jacques’s arguments in his When China Rules the World—emphasizes the political and cultural challenge that a rising China presents.  In that sense, both books are important to read to understand how China is increasingly shaping the world.

While numerous books and articles have projected the near-certainty of China’s rise to global supremacy, Timothy Beardson in Stumbling Giant: The Threats to China’s Future controverts such widely held assumptions.  Beardson brings to light the daunting array of challenges that confront China today, as well as the inadequacy of the policy responses.  Threats to China come on many fronts, as Beardson shows.  Because the population and size of China are massive, these problems will impede China’s ambitions to become the world’s dominant power.  Beardson’s argument is worth commending, yet his arguments are one-dimensional and too simplistic in nature.  Forecasting is difficult, and this is especially so in relation to China.

Other accounts of China’s development in the world present more balanced views toward its rise.  That means China is not rising from a vacuum but within a context with many problems and challenges.  A former bureau chief of the Financial Times in Beijing and an award-winning journalist, James Kynge in China Shakes the World: A Titan’s Rise and Troubled Future—and the Challenge for America describes the breakneck rise of China, as well as the unparalleled problems the country now faces.  Kynge points out that China is managing to ensure its mounting supremacy in a symbiotic way with partners.

China specialist Jonathan Fenby in Will China Dominate the 21st Century? provides another objective assessment of China’s upsurge.  It challenges a number of myths about China’s rise and provides valuable insights into its current dilemmas and unpredictable future.  This effective analysis offers a more pragmatic view, rather than wishful thinking, about where the PRC is heading.  In view of that, it is an admirable corrective to either overly laudatory or excessively dire assessments of China’s future.

There are two books worth mentioning for their distinctive methods.  One is The Dragon Wakes – The Rise and Future of China by Matt Buttsworth, which uses standard international relations methods to study the distribution of power and how power shifts.  In this volume, Buttsworth focuses on the historical rise and decline of the West, and why Asian nations like China and India are now becoming the dominant economic and technological powers in the world.  The book recognizes the widely divergent potential paths for China in the future.

The other book is Interpreting China’s Grand Strategy: Past, Present, and Future, authored by Michael D. Swaine and Ashley J. Tellis.  The authors identify and analyze the major factors determining China’s grand strategy to better understand the motivations behind Chinese behavior.  By doing so, they help to assess how such behavior might evolve in the future.  Swaine and Tellis give little attention to the prospects of either regime collapse or radical transformation caused by the growing domestic dissidence.  Instead, they offer a cautiously optimistic outlook for China’s domestic progress and a pessimistic outlook on Chinese behavior in East Asia.  Not only is it an excellent study of China’s grand strategy, the book is also remembered for its distinctive methodology—using China’s past as precedent to its prospective foreign policies.

In a previously surveyed title, China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power, Rob Gifford not only offers his perceptions of China today but also presents a more balanced assessment of the implications for US policy.  Gifford believes that punishing China with high tariffs could backfire.  The West must avoid the “friend or foe” dichotomy, and should generate a nuanced foreign policy that aims to protect Western economic interests and at the same time avoid the “overly emotional demagoguery.”  Although deeper knowledge about China’s inner working will not make the tasks of American policy makers easier, it offers the possibility of a better-informed US policy.