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The Rise of China

This is the second part of a four-part debate. To read the first installment, click on the link below:

Part 1, Monday: Peter Navarro

Tuesday, May 29

Dear Peter,

You and I differ less than you imagine. You're wrong to think that I see "a country engaged in a largely benign and peaceful twenty-first-century charm offensive." As I indicate clearly in the book, what I set out to do was first to chronicle how China had chosen to utilize its soft power over the past decade, without making judgments about what it would use this new soft power for. This is why the initial chapters of the book are devoted to chronicling, in a journalistic style, exactly how China is building its soft power. Even if, as you believe, Beijing has the most nefarious intentions, it still behooves American policymakers to understand how China acts on the ground; informed opinion and policymaking must rely first on facts, not just theories.

The second part of the book asks what China will use its growing soft power for. Again, the conclusion I draw may not be so different from yours. I also fear the impact of China's influence on labor, environmental, and corporate governance policies around the world; and I fear that, ultimately, China will use its charm for harder goals, and possibly to seriously diminish American influence in critical parts of the world. Clearly, there is a precedent in which rising powers, once they have amassed greater power, want to change the international system they emerged into. But I am unwilling yet to concede that Beijing has made a decision to push the United States out. Beijing itself often seems unsure of its direction--reflected at times when China's friends like Hugo Chávez condemn the United States, and then Beijing rushes to downplay the anti-American rhetoric, as the Chinese ambassador to Venezuela has done. Eventually, China may try to push other nations to choose between Beijing and Washington; but, it may not. China clearly is building up its military, but so, too, is it building up its economic interdependence with the United States.

I am also unwilling to concede that other nations, whom you describe as merely passive actors that cannot make any decisions, would necessarily allow Beijing to convert its charm into the kind of imperial, global dominance you suggest. One only needs to speak with Vietnamese policymakers, as I have done at length, to see that other nations still harbor fears of Chinese power and have the wiles (and skill) to continue to hedge against China. Or you could speak with savvy Singaporean officials, who have used China's rise to balance China, the United States, and Japan against each other in Southeast Asia. Or to South African diplomats, who have successfully taken advantage of China's demand for commodities while demanding important trade concessions from Beijing.

Finally, I also am unwilling to concede that China and its leadership are beyond influencing, as if the United States and China are locked into a course for the future. Right now, what China desires most of all is respect, a point that experienced China-watcher Orville Schell has noted. If China can win that respect by working with the established international order, as it did to great success during the Asian financial crisis and the six-party talks, it may become part of that responsible international order. Or it may not. Washington should prepare for both eventualities, not only for one.

Let me address some of your specific points. First, you seem to suggest that Beijing has a grand strategy of global dominance, and one that enjoys the assistance of the Chinese diaspora. While I believe that China has some elements of a centralized charm strategy, and also has tried to win greater access to global resources, its strategy remains diffuse, and its own actions suggest it is not as well-organized as one might think. I have spent years interviewing Chinese officials, and I find there is more diversity of opinion--and lack of coordination--among the Chinese bureaucracy than in many others. Numerous China scholars--both conservatives and liberals--agree.

What's more, while China has relied on overseas Chinese capital since 1979, I do not believe the Chinese diaspora assists China's political and security gains. To suggest otherwise is wrong, and dangerous, given that the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia has been unfairly tied to China's policies in the past and punished for this misperception, with rioters killing hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia. In fact, in my book research, I often found that ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia were the people most alienated by China's rise, since they had been early investors in China, in the early 1980s, and had seen their investments fail, leaving them with a negative impression of the People's Republic.

You also suggest that China is building other nations' infrastructure to help take their resources. This is certainly true, to some extent, and African states in particular need to take advantage of Chinese demand for commodities to build up other sectors of their economies. But the vast majority of Africa's exports to the West and Japan also are resources; in fact, Europe and the United States remain larger consumers of African oil and gas. The Chinese demand also has led to a spike in commodity prices, which benefits African countries. And the Chinese infrastructure is welcomed largely because Western countries, and the World Bank, stopped funding infrastructure years ago. To be sure, Chinese infrastructure sometimes is of low quality, and China prefers to tie its aid to using its own workers--though the United States and Japan also tie significant amounts of aid to conditions. Still, if Western donors got back into the game of funding infrastructure, African states might prefer Western-funded infrastructure.

You also suggest that China provides aid and weaponry to the leaders of nasty regimes it wants to court, with little accountability, and that it is building up its military. I don't disagree, and China's impact on aid can be particularly dangerous, as I have written about many times for TNR. (I do not argue in the book that China is not building up its military--only that it remains well behind the United States, a point on which nearly every substantial U.S. military analyst concurs.) The case of Zimbabwe is particularly egregious, and you know I have written about that at length. China's relationship with Sudan may rank as one of the most disastrous in the twenty-first century. But, in order to condemn China, we must also re-examine ourselves. Let us re-examine the U.S. relationship with countries like Equatorial Guinea, one of the worst dictatorships in Africa, or Pakistan, where massive assistance certainly helps keep in power the "ruling elites" Washington prefers.

What's more, you suggest that Beijing's actions are leading to a "groundswell" of resentment against the People's Republic. Sadly, that is not the case. I, too, would like to believe that some of Beijing's effect on labor, environmental, and governance policies is leading to a more negative impression of China around the world--and that this negative impression would help change China's policies. But I report. I examine facts on the ground. I go to developing countries and ask opinion leaders and average people for their views on China and Chinese policies. Then, I try to supplement that evidence with polls done by international and local polling firms.

And the evidence right now simply does not support your thesis on this point. Look at the data. Polls by the Program on International Policy Attitudes show that China remains extremely popular around the world; polls by the Lowy Institute in Australia, and even our own U.S. embassies in Southeast Asia, show the same, and they demonstrate that China is more popular than the United States. Look at the press coverage of China compared with America, which I have done. An analysis of the elite media in Southeast Asia, for example, shows virtually no critical coverage of China's economic, political, or security actions. Look at reactions to free trade agreements with China versus reactions to free trade agreements with the United States. Thailand's free trade agreement with China has elicited limited critical comment in Thailand. When the United States tried to sign a free trade agreement with Thailand, thousands of Thai demonstrators gathered to burn the Thai negotiators in effigy.

There are notable exceptions, and indeed there may be more anger in the future. Anger at China's poor labor policies in Zambia crested into anti-Chinese sentiment there--sentiment, I think, that does affect the Chinese leadership. Anger has grown among some African leaders for China's part in the Darfuri genocide. This anger may grow in the future if China does not become a responsible power, which it well may not. But, for now, like it or not, China has won many friends.


By Joshua Kurlantzick