Shadow Government

Four hopes, five preferences, and one big test

The anointment of a new leader of the Chinese Communist Party has usefully re-focused the world’s attention on how China might use its growing economic, military and diplomatic power and influence in the coming years, and how its neighbors, and especially the United States, will respond. A lot is riding on China’s decision. The regional ...

ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images
ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images

The anointment of a new leader of the Chinese Communist Party has usefully re-focused the world’s attention on how China might use its growing economic, military and diplomatic power and influence in the coming years, and how its neighbors, and especially the United States, will respond. A lot is riding on China’s decision. The regional and even the international order for the coming decades, and perhaps longer, will depend on which pathway it selects.

The Chinese have a talent for developing aphorisms that can apply to any situation, and so I’ve decided to borrow from that tradition and call my remarks "The Four Hopes, the Five Preferences, and the One Test."

Now, a rising China is nothing new. It has been predicted, and feared, for well over two centuries. In the United States, it has long been a repository of hope for those people who had both the vision to understand China’s potential and the arrogance to think that the United States could actually shape China to meet our desires.

During the 20th century, these hopes found expression in three separate areas. In the early part of the century, China was viewed as a vast and lucrative market for American goods. The Harvard historian Ernest May tells us that one of the books on China that was popular at the time was called Four Hundred Million Customers. The thinking was that U.S. factories could be prosperous beyond belief if only each Chinese would buy one … well, one of anything we produced.

Coexisting with this first hope of unimagined riches from trade with China was a second hope, one more concerned with the next world than this more temporal one. Many Americans saw China as a great opportunity to convert pagans to Christianity. More important than four hundred million consumers, there were four hundred million souls waiting to be saved.

The middle of the 20th century saw a third U.S. hope for China: that it would become a thriving democracy. Henry Luce and his media empire of TIME, Life, and Fortune magazines relentlessly trumpeted to the American people the potential waiting to be unlocked by a China comprised of unfettered markets, religious converts, and especially Jeffersonian democrats.

As we know, none of these three hopes came to pass, at least not quite according to the American plan or the American timetable. The year 1949 was a watershed, marking the victory in the civil war of Mao and the Chinese Communist Party over Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists, who decamped to Taiwan.

Our sense of disappointment was so profound at these events, our sense of hope betrayed so deep, that we grasped for some explanation as to how such a loss could have occurred. We ended up embarking on a hunt to find scapegoats for "Who lost China?" The result was a purge of China hands, losing a generation of government experts and perhaps deterring another generation from taking their place. But the very question itself — "Who lost China?" — suggests that China was ours to lose in the first place.

To this record of U.S. wishful thinking from the past century has been added a fourth hope in the new century: that China will become a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system. As many of you know, this phrase was the centerpiece of an important speech delivered in September 2005 by the then-Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick. Zoellick assumed that China would continue to rise, with ever-greater power and influence in the world. The pertinent question, he believed, was how China would use its new power and influence as it grew.

According to Zoellick, China had a "responsibility to strengthen the international system that has enabled its success. … All nations conduct diplomacy to promote their national interests. Responsible stakeholders go further: They recognize that the international system sustains their peaceful prosperity, so they work to sustain that system."

Will this fourth hope come to pass? Will the Chinese become responsible stakeholders, creating public goods and placing their power in service to the global community? Will the Chinese remain outliers or even work to undermine the existing structures of global governance and reshape them to better suit their needs and wants? Will this fourth American hope lead to disappointment and bitterness as before or will it lead to something far worse: armed confrontation and conflict?

The reality is that we simply don’t know today which path China will choose — not America’s China experts, not our multi-billion dollar intelligence community, and perhaps not even the Chinese themselves. As a U.S. ambassador, experienced in Asia, recently told me: "We’re betting that as China gets richer, it will have to get more democratic. The Chinese leadership is betting that as China gets richer, it can still maintain control. All I know is that one of us is wrong."

So we can’t predict the outcome. But we do know that the answer will be revealed in the coming years as we watch carefully the decisions the Chinese take on supporting the international financial system, working to halt climate change, preventing proliferation and respecting the peaceful resolution of disputes.

But even if we don’t know today what China’s answer will be, we are not completely helpless. Our immediate task is to articulate clearly our policy preferences. What type of responsible behavior do we wish to see from China and what type of behavior do we object to? What do we really want China to do, and refrain from doing?

Going forward, I think the United States has five preferences for Chinese behavior:

  • We would prefer to see China’s promotion of an international trading system based on open markets, respect for intellectual property, and a currency that is not kept artificially low to stimulate exports.
  • We would prefer to see China’s promotion of economic development and good governance in developing countries.
  • We would prefer to see China join with us in the promotion of clean energy policies.
  • We would prefer to see the peaceful resolution of boundary and maritime disputes without resort to the sort of bluster we witnessed by the Chinese foreign minister at the ASEAN Regional Forum this past July or the type of blackmail we saw during the recent Senkaku Islands incident.
  • And we would prefer to see greater cooperation in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, especially with respect to Iran and North Korea.

Given my past involvement in Korea, I’d like to take a minute to discuss in a little more detail how China could become more of a responsible stakeholder with respect to North Korea.

No one knows how long the North Korean regime will last. But we do know that when it collapses, a crisis will ensue. North Korea’s neighbors will be confronted with an array of unprecedented problems and dangers. This will be unexplored territory. Some challenges will be immediate, such as securing fissile materials, ballistic missiles and any nuclear weapons. Others will relate to refugees and humanitarian assistance. As the crisis unfolds (and there are many ways in which it may do so), deeper and longer-term issues will emerge as all of the North’s neighbors jockey for influence. Questions regarding the North’s terms of integration with the South, the deployment of Chinese and U.S. troops over the border, the continued presence of U.S. military forces on the peninsula — these will all need to be addressed. The future of America’s alliances with South Korea and Japan, and the changing balance of power between China and the United States, will also be implicated.

The end of the North Korean regime will usher in a moment of peril in the political and security relationships in the region — but it could also open up new opportunities for placing the region on a new and stable foundation. The United States and the other states in the region have a strong strategic interest in planning for this moment of crisis before it happens.

A China as a responsible stakeholder would welcome detailed discussions and contingency planning with the United States and other regional actors. Unfortunately, China has so far strongly resisted discussing these issues with us.

I am not optimistic that China will accommodate itself to all or even some of our five preferences. After all, China did not write these rules. China was mired in poverty, civil war, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution when many of the rules of global governance were originally drafted. And it is useful to recall that at the start of the 19th century another rising power warned foreigners not to interfere in its sphere of influence. I’m pretty sure that the Monroe Doctrine translates into Mandarin.

So we should expect China to want to change some of these rules to better reflect its desires. And we should expect these assertions to continue and perhaps get even more forceful in the future.

This will present Washington with an important test. This test will be in judging the difference between those Chinese efforts to negotiate reasonable adjustments to the existing order and those Chinese attempts to overturn it. It means judging the difference between actions that threaten to weaken our alliances and our military presence in Northeast Asia and those that allow for strengthening our cooperation in resolving some of the challenges that bedevil the region. It means judging the difference between actions and behavior we can tolerate and those we cannot.

These are the four hopes, the five preferences and the one test. Every day provides a new opportunity to see if our fourth hope is justified, how many of our five preferences are honored… and whether we pass the test.

This post was adapted from a talk given by Mitchell Reiss at a recent Korea Economic Institute and School of International Service at American University Conference.

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