The China we're stuck with — A post by Warren I Cohen

Warren I. CohenThe following is a post from Warren I. Cohen, author of America’s Response to China, Fifth Edition: A History of Sino-American Relations

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt spoke to a Chinese emissary of America’s hope for a strong, stable, and prosperous China. He professed to believe that such a China would be in the interest of the United States. Vice President Walter Mondale repeated Roosevelt’s words when he visited Beijing in 1979. In the early years of the new millennium, China has become strong, prosperous and reasonably stable—but many Americans are not so sure that’s good for them or their country.

Apprehension about the future of Chinese-American relations derives only marginally from the fact that China remains a nominally communist country in which the Communist Party monopolizes power. Unlike the days of the Cold War, when Soviet nuclear power loomed over us, few Americans fear a Chinese attack on the United States or the spread of communism. They do fear, however, the possibility of China outstripping the United States, China as # 1 in economic power and global influence.

For the United States, China’s recent surge has been a mixed blessing. For some years, China’s purchase of US debt has kept the American economy afloat, enabling its people to buy and enjoy cheap Chinese goods. Similarly, China’s economic growth has been the engine that drives the economies of its Asian neighbors. The boom years that much of the world enjoyed in the 1990s were in part a result of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, of China’s leap into the global marketplace. And however grudgingly, Beijing has moved toward acceptance of some international norms of behavior as evidenced by its role in the United Nations and in the World Trade Organization. But there are obvious caveats: American (and European) workers have lost jobs to lower paid Chinese workers and the undervalued Chinese currency has had a negative impact on the economies of the United States and the European Union.

Moreover, Chinese leaders share few Western values or priorities and there is little evidence of mutual trust between Beijing and Washington. Most recently, China has obstructed efforts to halt Iran’s march toward becoming a nuclear power. It has done too little to help the international community in its efforts to end North Korea’s nuclear threat and it has sustained vicious dictatorships in Burma, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.

At home, its human rights record, much improved over the days of Mao Zedong, is nonetheless appalling—and trending toward becoming even worse. Not only dissidents, but lawyers who attempt to defend them and other victims of Chinese officialdom are subjected to beatings, torture, long imprisonments—and disappearances. Tibetans and less familiar minority groups such as the Uighers of Xinjiang are discriminated against in their own territories and often brutally repressed.

And then there is the issue of Taiwan. Within the intelligence community, the Taiwan Strait is frequently referred to as the most dangerous place in the world, the only spot where two nuclear armed Great Powers have confronted each other in the past—and might again. American presidents have interpreted the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 as a commitment to provide Taiwan with military equipment it requires for its defense. Each time Washington approves an arms sale to Taiwan, Beijing roars its disapproval—as it has in recent days. A defenseless Taiwan, without expectation of American intervention to protect it from the growing power of the People’s Republic, would presumably be intimidated into surrendering its de facto independence and submitting to reunification with the mainland. The United States insists that reunification can only be achieved when the people of democratic Taiwan accept it without coercion—an event not likely to occur in the lifetime of anyone reading this.

Much of Beijing’s current outrage with American policy toward Taiwan, with American sympathy for the Dalai Lama, is based upon the conviction that China is a rapidly rising power and the United States is in steep decline. Chinese leaders, perceiving a change in the correlation of forces in their favor, expect Washington to behave more deferentially. They probably don’t expect the koutou, the prostrations and head-bangings that the emperors demanded of foreign visitors back in the days when China was on top of the world, but the rough equivalent—acceptance of Chinese values and priorities—would be welcome. Of late, American scholars and diplomats have been struck by the growing arrogance of their Chinese counterparts, lectures on the superiority of the Chinese model to the American model, the failure of American democracy, American economic profligacy, even on human rights in the United States. This will only get worse until we get our house in order, until we can demonstrate again that democracy works and that our economic system can provide jobs and a decent standard of living for all Americans.

The Chinese have been wrong before about America’s decline, their analysts predicting it on the eve of the great expansion of American economic and military power in the 1990s. We can only hope to prove them wrong again—before they do much more harm to the international system. In the interim, our choices are very limited. China is too strong, too important to the world economy to be ignored or pressured into doing what we believe to be right. That leaves us with the unappealing policy of “engagement,” to which Washington has ultimately turned under both Democratic and Republican administrations for decades. It means coexisting with a difficult, unsavory regime, relying on diplomacy to persuade Beijing that what we want is in its interest and accepting what little progress can be made.

Historically, China has overreached and self-destructed whenever it played the role of hegemonic power. The arrogance it currently exhibits suggests it is headed in that direction again. But it is not in the interests of the United States for China to collapse. It remains in our interest to have a strong, stable, and prosperous China. Optimally it would also be friendly and democratic. Don’t hold your breath.

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