China: A Partner or Adversary?

Will a more mature, developed, and self-confident China be a cooperative partner or a strategic adversary? For more than three decades, American foreign policy has been predicated on the desirability of encouraging China’s entry into the global community of nations, with the expectation (as articulated by Richard Nixon in a famous 1967 essay in Foreign Affairs) that a globally engaged China would be less hostile, less dogmatic, and more “civilized.”

Opinion remains deeply divided on how well this optimistic prophesy has fared to date. On the one hand, China’s rise has been marked by a generally cautious, non-confrontational approach to international relations. With the sole major exception of the Taiwan issue, on which Chinese policy remains rigid and unyielding, the PRC has acted flexibly and pragmatically in world politics since 1980. Among other things, it has become a responsible member of the World Trade Organization; refrained from exercising its veto power as a permanent member of the UN Security Council; supported international nuclear nonproliferation, anti-terrorism, and anti-drug trafficking initiatives; actively participated, since the late 1990s, in 15 UN peacekeeping operations in such places as Cambodia, Haiti, East Timor, Lebanon and Congo; taken the lead in organizing and hosting six-party talks on North Korean nuclear disarmament; become an active, cooperating partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN); and entered into negotiations to resolve longstanding territorial disputes with several of its neighbors, including Russia, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakstan, Vietnam, Nepal, and India. This is an impressive record of responsible behavior.

On the other hand, Beijing’s relentless drive to reunify the “renegade province” of Taiwan, by force if necessary, appears to belie its leaders’ oft-repeated claim of a “peaceful rise.” With more than 1000 ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan, and with a defense budget increasing at double-digit rates for almost two decades, Beijing’s ultimate military intentions are a source of mounting international concern. Other causes for concern include an apparently rising tide of virulent Chinese nationalism, principally aimed at Japan and the United States; a growing and seemingly insatiable Chinese appetite for natural resources and raw materials; a chronically undervalued Chinese yuan, which has enabled a vast surge of low-cost, labor-intensive Chinese exports to flood world markets; and Beijing’s willingness to ignore egregious human rights violations in pursuit of its diplomatic and commercial interests in such chronic “pariah” states as Burma, Zimbabwe and Sudan—not to mention China’s most recent, defiant rejection of all foreign criticism of its crackdown on popular protest in Tibet.

Such concerns are real, and should not be discounted; yet they do not add up to an inevitably adversarial relationship between China and the West, as some have argued. For the past three decades, a gradual, almost invisible process of international accommodation and convergence has been underway. For its part, China has totally abandoned its revolutionary Maoist credo; accepted the principles of a free-market economy; joined the prevailing Western finance and trade regime; and quietly undertaken to become a “responsible stakeholder” (in Robert Zoellick’s felicitous phrase) in the international community. In each of these respects, China’s behavioral adjustments have been real and substantial, adding up to a profound sea change in the Chinese world view.

That significant differences in interest, orientation and national priority remain between China and the West should hardly be surprising. Whenever a dynamic, rising power seeks a larger niche in a world dominated by a single, status quo-preserving superpower, a certain amount of friction is inevitable. Such friction—manifested in mounting competition for resources and raw materials, in legislation designed to protect domestic products and jobs against low-cost foreign imports, in differing strategic definitions of “vital” national interests, and in a general tendency to view the “other” as a threat to one’s own peace and security—need not be unduly alarming. The true art of positive diplomacy lies not in suppressing or denying divergent national needs, interests, and expectations, but rather in learning to live with them, seeking common ground where possible, agreeing to disagree where not possible, and contesting where necessary.

A recent projection by Goldman Sachs suggests that the Chinese economy, measured in terms of total purchasing power, is likely to surpass the U.S. economy some time before 2030, though per-capita income and GDP will remain substantially lower in China throughout the century. Militarily, the gap is expected to close somewhat faster. In 2004 the Pentagon estimated that Chinese military technology was about 15 to 20 years behind that of the United States, with the U.S. lead gradually shrinking as China accelerates its selective acquisition of advanced weapons systems. More recent estimates of time-to-parity have been revised further downward, with some analysts now suggesting between 2012 and 2015 the United States will lose its theater military superiority in the Western Pacific, thus in effect rendering Taiwan indefensible. These are troubling projections. Yet, by focusing solely on China’s rapidly growing economic and military capacity, we risk begging the vital question of China’s ultimate intentions. Here the picture is more reassuring, for apart from the Taiwan case (which China continues to treat as a purely domestic matter) there is no empirical evidence to suggest that Beijing harbors aggressive designs on any other foreign country. On the contrary, Beijing has, since the early 1980s, behaved with considerable caution and restraint in exercising its rising diplomatic and military clout. Might they be biding their time, maintaining a low profile until they feel confident of their ability to confront American military power? Conceivably, yes. But, again excepting the Taiwan case, there is no firm evidence to support such a conjecture. With few exceptions, China’s behavior in world politics over the past quarter century has tended to converge with, rather than diverge from, conventional norms and standards of international diplomacy. China has indeed embarked on the road to becoming a responsible stakeholder in global affairs. Such a long-term trend should be reckoned as a cause for cautious optimism about the future.

We should not, however, expect even a substantially cooperative, converging China indefinitely to take a back seat to unilateral American power, influence and interests. As China continues to rise, it will inevitably be drawn to probe the limits of American regional and global dominance and “spread its wings” as an independent force in world politics. As much as the United States may resist the idea of sharing the global stage with an energetic, self-confident Chinese “peer competitor,” such an accommodation will have to be made. The alternative is a new Cold War, and the very real possibility of a hot war. In this respect it is America, rather than China, that faces the more daunting challenge—that of gracefully accepting the eventual, inevitable diminution of its own unipolar global dominance.

In all this, considerable patience and understanding will be required. Demonizing China will prove counterproductive. For example, blaming China’s undervalued yuanfor our own ongoing national orgy of over-consumption and deficit spending does not help; neither does imposing punitive trade sanctions on China for “unfair competition” while we ourselves continue to protect and subsidize politically influential sectors of the American economy. To be sure, China has engaged in unfair trade practices; its domestic record on human rights and political reform remains a sorry one; and Beijing’s recurrent threats to reunify Taiwan by force have rightly been decried as bullying. But tectonic plates are shifting. Since 2005, China has re-valued its currency by 17 percent, with additional adjustments expected by the end of the current year.

Also since the spring of 2005 Beijing has refrained from threatening military action against Taiwan, appealing instead to the common economic and cultural aspirations of the Chinese and Taiwanese people, and looking to Washington to restrain President Chen Shui-bian’s more egregious attempts to push the envelope of Taiwanese independence. In this situation, the election of a new, reconciliation-minded Taiwanese President, Ma Ying-jeou, in March 2008 appears to augur a period of greater cross-strait self-restraint and mutual accommodation.

Helping to promote further changes in the desired direction will take time and patience, along with a determination to regenerate America’s own severely eroded “soft power,” so that the United States may once again exercise moral leadership in a world beset by rising anxiety and insecurity. It will also take persistent international pressure, applied calmly and with sensitivity to Chinese national pride. We in the West would be well advised to identify ourselves with the forces of progress in China, rather than empowering the forces of reaction by vilifying China’s every move. That said, nothing we can do will ultimately guarantee a peaceful, cooperative China. That is a job for future generations of Chinese themselves. The best we can do is help to make their task a bit easier.