This morning’s Washington Post Outlook piece by Steven Mufson nicely covers many of the biggest questions surrounding America’s strategy toward China, and China’s emerging place in world politics. And when I say “nicely,” I mean that, in a refreshing change from standard Mainstream Media practice, he doesn’t simply assume that the U.S. policy establishment consensus view on dealing with China is the only approach within the bounds of sanity. Far from it.
Especially gratifying was Mufson’s pointed reminder that, although for decades, U.S. Presidents from both parties have tried to turn China into what one top diplomat called “a responsible stakeholder” in the international system, the very concept was till recently so foreign to China that the language couldn’t even translate it. The author didn’t explicitly echo my view, expressed in Fortune over the summer, that this strategy of taming China has been a complete failure. But his article makes abundantly clear how remote success remains, and how high the obstacles tower.
I was also pleased to see Mufson question the idea of inducing China to observe international economic and political rules and norms by pointing out that the concept of rule of law clashes with the imperatives of Communist rule. I’d actuallly go farther, and say that Chinese civilization lacks anything like a legalistic tradition at least as it’s defined in the West. But he made clear the broader point: If Chinese leaders don’t follow rules when dealing with their own people, why would they take them seriously when dealing with foreign powers or businesses?
Mufson also skillfully reveals inconsistencies in America’s own position. Yes, Washington has long endorsed the idea of turning world politics from a law-of-the-jungle system to a rule-of-law based system. Indeed, in important instances – like its acceptance of a powerful one-country/one-vote World Trade Organization – the United States has subordinated its immediate, concrete interests to this ideal. But just as often, American policy has made clear its expectation that the United States would remain first among equals and, as Mufson notes, that the rules would be U.S.-inspired. (Similarly, in its alliance policies, American leaders have frequently urged on NATO’s European members and Japan to assume more of the common defense burden, but have balked at agreeing to share decision-making power more fully.)
There’s one subject I wish Mufson has raised, though – America’s hedging strategy, or lack thereof. Not that Washington hasn’t thought of Plan Bs in case its version of the “China Dream” isn’t realized. But U.S. plans for coping with the possibility (or, as I would call it, the reality) of an uncooperative China can’t legitimately inspire confidence.
After all, repeated U.S. promises to stand by regional allies quarreling with China over various territorial disputes matter much less than the Chinese military advances that are steadily depriving America of the strategic nuclear edge needed to prevail in confrontations, and to deter Beijing’s belligerence in the first place.
Economically, both Presidents Bush (43) and Obama decided to rely on efforts to seek a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal both to counter China’s growing commercial influence and to create incentives for it to accept Western-style standards by requiring such commitments for entry. But as I’ve previously written, East Asian manufacturing in particular has long operated as a region-wide production system whose hub for the most part is China. This high level of integration means that current TPP countries that are part of this system (Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, and Malaysia) will be constantly pressuring Washington to admit Beijing whether it measures up to TPP’s terms or not.
Moreover, TPP member Australia has already negotiated its own free trade agreement with China, and Japan (along with South Korea) is still working on one with China, despite still simmering geopolitical tensions between Beijing and Tokyo.
Most worrisome, the leaderships of both major American political parties seem so invested in the idea of engaging with and thus normalizing China, that it’s difficult to imagine either of them acknowledging failure. The odds of U.S. leaders reaching this heterodox conclusion in time to prevent a disaster or major setback seem slimmer still.