Andrew J. Nathan writes: Ten years ago the journalist James Mann published a book called The China Fantasy, in which he criticized American policymakers for using something he called “the Soothing Scenario” to justify the policy of diplomatic and economic engagement with China. According to this view, China’s exposure to the benefits of globalization would lead the country to embrace democratic institutions and support the American-led world order. Instead, Mann predicted, China would remain an authoritarian country, and its success would encourage other authoritarian regimes to resist pressures to change.
Mann’s prediction turned out to be true. China took advantage of the growing potential of unrestricted global commerce to emerge as the number one trading nation and the second-largest economy in the world. It is the top trading partner of every other country in Asia, not least because of its crucial position assembling parts that have been produced elsewhere in the region. Sixty-four countries have joined China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) infrastructure initiative, which was announced in 2013 and consists of ports, railways, roads, and airfields linking China to Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe—a “New Silk Road” that, if it succeeds, will greatly expand China’s economic and diplomatic influence. Twenty-nine heads of state attended Beijing’s OBOR conference in mid-May.
Meanwhile, China has remained an authoritarian, one-party state that is backed by an increasingly powerful military. China’s military budget has risen at the same rate as its GDP for the past quarter-century, from $17 billion in 1990 to $152 billion in 2017—a 900 percent increase. This has allowed China to acquire aircraft carriers, sophisticated missiles, advanced submarines, and cyberwar capabilities that challenge American military dominance in Asia. It has vastly expanded its naval presence in what it calls the “near seas” around its coast, and even into the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
China has attained this new position of power while mostly complying with the rules of the World Trade Organization, which it joined in 2001. Still, in 2016 Western governments found it necessary to renege on a commitment they made when China joined to give it full “market economy status” after 15 years of membership. This status would have made it harder for other WTO members to sue China for “dumping”—selling products at less than market-price production cost to drive out competitors—but the promise to accord that status had been based on the expectation that China would turn into a Western-style market economy.
That has not happened. Instead, the state has continued to control the Chinese economy in its effort to expand the market share of Chinese enterprises both in China and abroad. Beijing has carried out industrial espionage to acquire advanced Western technology, forced the transfer of technology from Western to Chinese enterprises through joint ventures and merger agreements, and, for a time (although not now), suppressed the exchange value of its currency in order to stimulate exports. Since 2006, Beijing has used various forms of regulation that are not banned by the WTO to make it difficult for foreign businesses to enter and compete in its domestic market, and to give an advantage to Chinese enterprises—especially in cutting-edge fields like semiconductors, advanced manufacturing, and information and communications technology.
China’s increasingly pervasive economic influence has contributed to the populist and antiglobalization movements that are now taking hold in many countries in the West, including in the U.S. with Donald Trump. In a striking reversal, it was Chinese President Xi Jinping rather than a European or American leader who delivered a strong defense of globalization at the January 2017 meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos.
President Barack Obama sought to strengthen U.S. alliances in Asia in the hope of keeping China’s rise in check. By contrast, President Trump has questioned the value of alliances with Japan and South Korea, withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and for a time put a hold on American Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea. At the Mar-a-Lago summit in April, Trump embarrassingly acted like Xi Jinping’s pupil on the question of North Korea’s growing nuclear menace, stating, “After listening [to Xi] for ten minutes, I realized it’s not so easy.” He then cast aside his campaign commitments to raise tariffs on China and challenge China on currency manipulation in what turned out to be the vain hope that China would solve the North Korea problem for him. To the contrary, the threat has only grown, with Pyongyang’s successful July 4 test of a long-range missile that may be capable of reaching Alaska.
To make matters worse, the Trump family have placed themselves conspicuously on China’s payroll, accepting future profits in the form of trademarks for both the Trump and Ivanka brands, and seeking Chinese investment in Kushner real estate projects. When China Labor Watch (CLW), a New York–based labor rights organization, published information on poor conditions in a factory where Ivanka’s brand-name shoes had recently been produced, China detained the group’s three field investigators, the only time CLW’s investigators have been detained for exposing the abuse of Chinese workers.2
These signs of confusion in American policy have accelerated the growth of China’s economic and political influence. In Asia, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte softened the previous Filipino administration’s position on its South China Sea territorial dispute with China and accepted a large Chinese trade and investment package; Malaysian leader Najib Razak agreed to the first purchase of Chinese vessels for his navy; Korean voters selected a new president, Moon Jae-in, who has promised closer relations with Beijing; and Vietnam has stepped up diplomatic and military relations with China.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has stuck to the American alliance, but if U.S. policy continues to show weakness, Japan will ultimately face a choice either of compromising with China’s territorial claims in the East China Sea or of rearming itself more heavily, perhaps even with nuclear weapons. According to Graham Allison, Director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, in his new book Destined for War, “As far ahead as the eye can see, the defining question about global order is whether China and the US can escape Thucydides’s Trap,” which he defines as a likely war between a dominant power and a rising power.
Two other recent books, however, while approaching the subject in very different ways, suggest that China is not as threatening as many commentators would have us believe. Michael Auslin, a research fellow at the conservative Hoover Institute, declares the end of the Asian Century before it has much begun, because leading Asian countries, including China, have not adopted the business-friendly economic practices, pro-democracy political reforms, and cooperative regional institutions that would enable them effectively to rival the West. Oliver Stuenkel, a Brazilian academic more on the left, argues instead that the emergence of China and other Asian powers is an accomplished fact that cannot be reversed, but that the power shift does not present a serious threat to Western interests. Although both books discuss all of Asia, China is central to their arguments.
Auslin’s analysis is grounded in the contested set of ideas that used to be called the Washington Consensus—the belief that free markets, free trade, and political democracy are necessary for economies to grow and political systems to be stable. Since the Chinese approach disregards this theory, Auslin thinks the country will stumble before it seriously challenges American preeminence. He sees many problems in the Chinese economy, including the excessive number and size of state-owned enterprises, opaque corporate governance, huge government debt (200 percent of GDP by some estimates), a property bubble, and overdependence on exports. But this adds up simply to a description of how the economy is run, not to an argument that this way of running it will not work … (read more)