China’s Illiberal Challenge
The real threat posed by China isn’t economic or military–it’s ideological.
At the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, China will present to the world the glowing image of a fast-modernizing and responsible nation, rising gracefully to accept its rightful membership in the club of great powers. Already, the Chinese government has embarked upon a widespread charm offensive, seeking the international respect it craves to match its growing economic and cultural heft. Its efforts have been strongest in Southeast Asia, where China is aggressively forging new partnerships that are replacing age-old territorial conflicts. And its strategy is paying off. In a region that has benefited from decades of strong trade and security ties with America and has been long wary of Chinese ambition, a recent BBC poll showed that elites and everyday people alike now see China more favorably than they do the United States.
China also has turned up its efforts to sway the opinions of Americans. Last year, for instance, Beijing paid more than $2 million to sponsor a Festival of China at Washington’s Kennedy Center, where the Chinese culture minister told a gathering of U.S. executives and diplomats that “China brings to the [sic] America love and not threat.” Despite these efforts, the “China Threat” has been the subject of countless articles, books, and conferences dissecting how, if, and when the rise of China will adversely affect American security and prosperity. This discussion has revolved around the assumption that the Chinese challenge will be defined by the country’s material power–by how many warheads it builds, T-shirts it makes, or oilfields it buys. To be sure, China’s arms build-up and steroid-paced growth are causes for serious concern. But the rise of China is about a lot more than guns and butter. Equally challenging are the new ideas that rise with it: illiberal conceptions of internal governance and international norms.
Since the end of the Cold War, democratic liberalism has been the dominant model for national development and international affairs. The liberal creed centers on the economic and political freedoms that citizens have in relation to government and the belief that it is the responsibility of the international community to promote and protect those rights worldwide. The rise of China presents the West, for the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall, with a formidable ideological challenge to that paradigm. The “China model” powerfully combines two components: illiberal capitalism, the practice and promotion of a governance strategy where markets are free but politics are not; and illiberal sovereignty, an approach to international relations that emphasizes the inviolability of national borders in the face of international intervention. China’s rise, in turn, presents a successful and, in many nations’ eyes, increasingly legitimate model for national development, one that poses a distinct alternative to Western-style democratic liberalism.
For the United States, it is this ideological challenge that, in the long run, presents more of a security threat than any military imbalance or trade deficit. The spreading of Chinese illiberalism could set scores of developing nations away from the path of liberal democracy, creating a community of countries that reject Western views of human rights and accepted standards of national governance. In the rise of China, what is really at stake is not American competitiveness or power, but the future of the liberal international order. There is indeed a new China threat, but it’s an ideological one.
Markets and Missiles
Over the past decade, American foreign policy-makers have staked out positions on China along fairly traditional lines, based upon differing interpretations of when and how its growing economic and military might will become a menace to American interests. In one camp are the hardliners, who believe that the China of today embodies a clear and present challenge and should be dealt with accordingly. They cite China’s dangerous (although opaque) increase in arms spending, coupled with its rising regional influence. These strategic concerns are joined by voices on Capitol Hill, who argue that America’s economic competitiveness and the well-being of their constituents are being eroded by China’s cheap labor, lax intellectual property protection, and undervalued currency. The suggested response is a twenty-first-century policy of containment, comprising heavy-handed diplomacy–and punitive measures if need be–to eliminate China’s unfair advantages.
Countering the hardliners are a set of non-alarmist moderates who argue that the China of 2025 will be either too weak or too friendly to pose a threat to the United States. On the military side, they note the unquestionable predominance of the Americans in the Pacific Theater, with the Chinese a long way from being able to mount a serious threat. The economic story is similar: Although China is large and growing rapidly, it still accounts for barely 5 percent of the world economy–ranking fourth in size behind the United States, Japan, and Germany–and remains a low-wage, low-tech, and fairly corrupt developing economy that is riddled with inefficiencies. Burgeoning environmental, social, and political pressures, in this view, also may yet stall China’s economic engine.
Others in the moderate camp are more bullish on China’s prospects, contending that as it continues its dramatic ascent it will, over time, be less likely to clash with the United States. First, the opportunity cost of conflict will become too great as China becomes wealthier and more interconnected with the global economy. Second, the growth of China’s middle class, along with their inevitable demand for political participation, will compel China to evolve into a peaceful democracy. For the moderates, patience and restraint are the watchwords; engagement is the overall arc of policy. The hope, in the words of former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, is that China will become a “responsible stakeholder” in the global system that has facilitated its ascent.
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