In the March issue of the influential US magazine Foreign Affairs, Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner, two former officials of the Obama administration, have published an important article entitled “The China Reckoning: How Beijing defied American Expectations”.
It is a pleasant read, and the main argument is quite simple. For more than 40 years, the authors say, America’s China policy has rested on naïve assumptions, and it is now time to acknowledge this and to change course.
The naïve assumptions are well-known: economic development requires capitalism and openness to succeed; capitalism cannot be “state capitalism” without losing its appeal of efficiency and transparency; capitalism and the improvement of living conditions will produce a powerful middle class that sooner or later will extract concessions from the regime with inexorable democratisation in the offing.
Much the same assumptions were made about globalisation: co-opt China into global institutions, and it will be grateful. It will have a stake in a process that has greatly benefited the Chinese people, and it will therefore behave “responsibly,” according to American standards, norms and wishes.
However, what has in fact happened in China has been quite different, and US decision-makers should have considered it as a plausible scenario and even as a likely one. State capitalism has flourished instead of disappearing, democratisation has stalled, and authoritarianism has had a second wind. China has looked at the global system as a kind of supermarket, buying what it wants and ignoring the rest.
Worse, Beijing is now trying to rewrite many international rules. In an earlier issue of the same magazine (September 2016), former US chief of staff Martin Dempsey said that the Chinese “would inevitably point out that those rules were made when they were absent from the world stage. They are no longer absent from the world stage, and so those rules need to be renegotiated with them.” The Chinese have relentlessly promoted their interests, according to their own definition of them. They also hold grudges.
It would be easy to mock America’s constant wishful thinking, which, combined with its urge to convert the planet to democracy and free markets, often leads to catastrophe. I myself have sometimes indulged in this. However, here we should go further than mockery and say that America’s policies have also rested on misperceptions, even if these may have been good ones.
The safer course would be to develop a correct reading of the situation and a proper estimation of what is possible before drawing up and implementing policies. Nevertheless, we have seen political leaders jumping from right assumptions to wrong policies and sometimes opting for good policies despite a radically wrong reading of the situation.
The structure of the article by Campbell and Ratner is simple: we did this, expecting that, and instead we got a radically different result. All the American administrations, starting with that led by former president Truman and ending with that now led by Trump, and all the experts associated with them have got things wrong, whether they called themselves liberals, integrationists or hawks. However, Campbell and Ratner never discuss other options even though to prove convincingly that one decision is bad it is necessary to offer other ones.
Moreover, though expectations might be based on “wishful thinking”, this says nothing about real outcomes: have they been good, bad, or mixed? Saying that the results were unexpected is not enough, especially if the reasoning is naïve.
The proper questions in this regard should be: has the US benefitted from China’s policies? Could the US have halted or prevented China’s rise? And, if so, at what cost?
The first question is the easiest one to answer, and the answer is a clear yes. Former US president Richard Nixon’s China policy made a lot of sense in the early 1970s, and corporate America made a lot of money by investing in China.
At one point, the authors of the article lament the fact that US multinationals were so eager to invest in China that they accepted an unprecedented set of conditions to do so, especially regarding the transfer of technology.
Nevertheless, I well remember the assessment made by the UK magazine the Economist at the time and later that China is too big to ignore. China went on to buy US government bonds and fund US debt.
Of course, China’s rise is a cause of concern for Washington on many issues, but it is also a source of relief on others. The US cannot sustain the world system alone. China brings tough competition, but it also brings necessary help.
The story has yet to end, and it is quite possible that on balance the US will lose out. However, the challenge of China is also a formidable opportunity for the US, as it could induce it to change its ways and stop doing stupid things.
The second and third questions are much more difficult to answer as they deal with things and processes that did not happen and are more speculative. The US has considerable clout, and it can poison the life of any country, doing considerable damage through its soft and smart power, through the networks it controls, and through relentless pressure. The US could have slowed China’s rise, or even stopped it. However, the price of doing so would have been considerable, and the US would have been much weaker that it is now as a result.
Two further remarks should also be made. First, a key variable would have been Europe’s behaviour. If it had decided to adopt the US policy of trying to slow or stop China’s rise, this option would have had much more credibility. Second, the relations between China and the US are not a zero-sum game. On many issues, the gains of the one are the losses of the other. However, on the economy things are much more complicated. The economy matters, and the US partnership with China has been good for the US on this and other counts.
I am not saying that China should not be a source of concern for Washington. I am not saying the US has not got “a case” against Beijing. I am not saying the US should not be worried. And I am not saying the US should not try to correct its assumptions and keep its fantasies in check. More often than not the latter have led to disasters.
I am only saying that a proper assessment of what has been done needs more sober analysis.
The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: China and the US