For the foreseeable future, America’s number one foreign-policy challenge will be its relationship with the People’s Republic of China. But whoever occupies the White House, China will preoccupy their focus in international affairs.
A fair amount of rhetoric now inhibits clear reflection upon the perfect way forward for America. On parts of the right, we hear calls for an”instant” decoupling of their American and Chinese economies. Yet few are embracing exactly how that may occur or admitting the subsequent costs that will be incurred by American consumers and companies. From parts of the abandoned we hear a parroting of President Xi Jinping’s lines around China’s deep commitment to international regulation. This goes with a reticence to acknowledge exactly how abominably the Chinese Communist Party regime treats sizable sections of its population.
The crisis in Sino-US events has, but created an opportunity for fundamentally rethinking the relationship. Any severe reset, I’d suggest, entails three recognitions.
One concerns jettisoning the extravagant rhetoric adopted by Democratic and Republican administrations in the early-1990s onwards that China’s economic opening into the world would set in train processes that would eventually, if not inevitably, lead to political liberalization. Plainly it’s not. The language and logic of economic determinism needs to be dispensed with.
The second is admitting that Beijing has abandoned the late Deng Xiaoping’s policy of”concealing strengths, biding time, never taking the lead” to ensure that China’s rise as a global power failed to alert the entire world. Instead Xi is striking a looser and assertive tone in foreign policy, backed up with increased military spending and activity. Evidently, China has gained a reasonable greater appetite for danger as it seeks to realize regional, national and Global ambitions
Finally, we should realize that China is substantially weaker than many realize. That is not a motive for US policymakers to become complacent. But insufficient attention to the massive difficulties confronting Beijing could easily lead to Washington making decisions that undermine America’s capacity to address its own China challenge.
All 3 recognitions exist in a novel suggesting a new way forward for Sino-US connections. In Stronger: Adapting America’s China Strategy in an Age of Competitive Interdependence, Ryan Hass, a former diplomat and then National Security Council official at the Obama Administration, has produced a concise and very readable suggestion for resetting America’s approach to China.
The most refreshing part of Hass’s novel is its Truth. Hass concentrates his reader’s focus upon the most outstanding pieces of economic, societal, political and, importantly, historical advice that Americans should think about as China competitions, in Hass’s words,”American leadership in a number of regions of the world simultaneously.”
1 these data-point is that China’s plan is driven by a desire to revive what many Chinese scholars regard “the natural state of international relations, with the nation resuming its standing as the world’s biggest economy and leading worldwide celebrity.” That’s seen as the best way to finally exorcise from China’s collective understanding the”century of humiliation” in which it became a plaything of Western powers in the mid-19th century onwards. Underestimating the extent to which agenda motivates China’s present leadership would be an error.
Another thing highlighted by Hass is that Xi’s aggressiveness in attempting to attain this goal is also about trying to conceal China’s deep vulnerabilities. In our present”What to consider China” second we hear comparatively little about Beijing’s considerable internal difficulties. This is odd because they go a very long way towards explaining”Why China does what it does.” Hass summarizes these weaknesses as:
Economic Issues: China’s state-driven expansion model has been losing steam for a while. All the problems linked with state-mercantilism–market access restrictions that discourage foreign investment; severe misallocations of funds by state-controlled banks lending to inefficient state enterprises as they try to outguess markets; industrial policies that breed cronyism and corruption; raising blindness to changes in comparative advantage; the diminishment of those disciplines which emanate from domestic and international competition, to name only a few–are coming home to roost in China (nota bene, American economic nationalists). Growth is slowingdown, productivity is falling, and China risks falling to the”middle-income trap” This occurs when a growing nation loses its comparative advantage in exporting manufactured goods because of rising salaries, then struggles to change from resource-driven development which relies on cheap labor and capital towards growth based on innovation and ever-increasing productivity.Demography: China is paying a hefty price because of its one-child policy. China is, Hass writes,”at risk of developing old before it grows rich.” Its working-age inhabitants is on course to psychologist by 170 million people over the next 30 decades. As the amount of retirees grows, China will need to devote ever-increasing amounts on aged-care as people demand more social protection and healthcare benefits. This will weaken consumption demand and crowd out expenditures for research and developmentand infrastructure, and protection. Then there is the gender imbalance resulting from Chinese families choosing to abort females in favor of males. Many young Chinese guys won’t find a spouse in the not too distant future and they won’t be happy with this. That’s a recipe for acute societal cohesion problems.Political Sclerosis: Reforms instituted by Deng to ensure internal political versatility and regular employees changeover have been jeopardized by Xi’s re-centralization of power in the Chinese Communist Party’s higher ranks, backed up by intensified ideological indoctrination of the population. That’s corroding something required by any regime: a willingness to divert new thinking and also the type of inner critique which encourages policy alterations. In addition, it encourages sycophancy among regime officials and a reluctance to tell the unvarnished reality. Lying as a way of life is growing politically institutionalized.Nationalist Authoritarianism: To encourage greater cohesion and top notch control, the program is stoking nationalist opinion. It has gone with tightened censorship, mass incarcerations of suspect boundary populations such as Uighur Muslims, radical curtailments of both Hong Kong and Macao’s autonomy, the crushing of some spiritual activity that implicitly challenges the CCP’s ability, and also increasingly bellicose language about Taiwan. The hidden cost is the degradation of feedback mechanisms that would enable the regime to understand what people are actually thinking. This breeds additional insecurity within the party’s upper-echelons, and thus eases additional crackdowns on dissent, real and imagined.Food and Energy Insecurity: China cannot feed itself, also relies on global markets to satisfy agricultural shortfalls. In addition, it imports 50 percent of its oil in the Middle East. Despite establishing naval access centers on the road between China and the Middle East, Beijing knows that these are easily severed in the event of conflict.Geographic stresses: China is bordered by no less than two nations. A number of these countries cannot be easily ignored. Japan is aging, however, stays wealthy and owns an advanced army. India is growing economically and militarily stronger annually. When combined with the North Korea wildcard plus also a Vietnam that has proven it won’t be pushed up, China’s immediate strategic environment is hardly optimal.Taken jointly, these weaknesses endanger what Hass denotes because the CCP’s”implicit bargain with its population of accelerated economic expansion in yield for one-party rule” Foreign policy adventurism is one way of distracting people’s attention from severe domestic problems. China is proving no exception in that respect.
If America is to advance its own interests within this context, Hass contends that there can be no going back into the paradigm that dominated China policy at the Bush I-Clinton-Bush II-Obama years. Although essential of Donald Trump’s rhetoric and style, Hass observes that the Trump Administration understood that something had shifted using Xi’s ascent into power. He states, opened up”area for debate and fresh thinking on assumptions and goals that should guide American strategy.” However, Hass additionally asserts that President Trump’s approach to China was ineffective and, in some cases, hurt American interests. Slapping tariffs on China didn’t alter Beijing’s behavior. Instead, it led in American customers and companies paying higher prices and cost some American workers their jobs.
China does not, he stresses, have benign intentions. It cannot be pacified by lodging. Beijing is intent on injuring and eventually eliminating America’s alliances in Asia. A number of the regime’s intentions –and its worth and governance design –conflict with those of America’s. Having an eye on forming the Biden Administration’s China strategy, Hass proposes something distinct to the pre-2016 and post-2016 settings. He calls it”aggressive interdependence.” By this, Hass means two axioms.
The first is the need to realize the two countries are in contest. He saysis that your”defining attribute of this relationship.” China is hard America. To pretend otherwise is naïve.
Hass’s second axiom is it is just as naïve to imagine the 2 nations can be radically disentangled in the modern globalized world. “Interdependence,” to get Hass, does not mean”Chimerica,” because the historian Niall Ferguson famously described the relationship in the 2000s. Rather, Hass concentrates on the simple fact that America and China would be the largest players around the block–especially the Asia-Pacific portion of the block–and many of their interests can’t help but float into a world far more economically integrated than through the Cold War.
These facts, in accordance with Hass, imply that both countries are interested in keeping their contest stable. Yet, Hass insists, America must compete. China does not, he stresses, have benign intentions. It cannot be pacified by lodging. Beijing is intent on injuring and eventually eliminating America’s alliances in Asia. A number of the regime’s intentions –and its worth and governance design –conflict with those of America’s. So while America’s capacity to flex China to its own will may be restricted, Hass needs America to become seriously interested in competing with Beijing, albeit within the constraints linked with interdependence.
To Hass’s head, this usually means that the US must build upon its comparative benefits. Among the more notable, he lists America’s unmatched community of military and strategic alliances (which dwarfs China’s); its own apparently ingrained dynamism and capacity of innovation; its own dominant financial system; its own sheer economic weight (that China’s increase has not dented); its own status as an energy superpower; also, most importantly its political norms and structures. The last of these, Hass asserts, cultivate institutions that provide America with the type of self-corrective mechanics the CCP program lacks–much more so beneath Xi.
Self-Confidence is Indispensable
Thus far so good. Yet, I have two reservations about Hass’s suggestion. In the first location, Hass asserts that”The United States’ most urgent priority is to right its own course. America’s future will be better served by focusing on strengthening itself than by trying to slow China.”
Much hinges here on the words”slow down” If this means we can’t force China to stop pursuing its neo-mercantilist ways, this is true. Nevertheless there are many actions that America can take against China’s use of predatory ways to accelerate its economic and military development by, for instance, stealing intellectual property from American companies and penetrating America’s R&D epicenters. America can also function to limit the economic reach of companies like Huawei that are traditionally termed extensions of the Chinese program. Hass acknowledges the need to address these issues, but I wonder whether he underrates the absolute extent and depth to which Beijing participates in these practices.
Second, Hass asserts that Washington has to highlight the beauty of their”principles and values at the heart of the American experiment” when America would be to outcompete China. The Sino-US contest is at least as much about values like economics and security.
However, Hass may underestimate exactly how much of America’s culture-forming institutions have relativized those principles. They’ve been depicted by Biden Administration officials as hopelessly mired in racism. Together with the toxins of identity politics and cancel culture seeping in American life, one wonders whether those principles still maintain a grip on large parts of the political class and portions of the wider population. Given the extent to which many progressives have made ideologically-charged notions like critical race theory and the 1619 Project fundamental to their oratory around America, no-one should be surprised when Chinese diplomats fling such rhetoric back into the face of a surprised American Secretary of State.
Obtaining America’s own house in order is definitely the sine qua non of any effort to manage a resurgent and belligerent China. Hass is dead appropriate to keep beating that drum. That means facing up to problems ranging from growing rule of law difficulties to out-of-control federal spending, but also prohibits false solutions such as economic nationalism.
However all this is for naught without a renewal of faith by Americans at America at each level of society. A nation at war with itself riddled with self-loathing cannot satisfactorily respond to outside challenges. In the long run, it’s domestic self-confidence that makes it possible for countries to act with self-assurance about the international stage. Unless America accomplishes that, its capability to tame this dragon is restricted.