China's unknowable future. A TNR debate, Day 4

This is the fourth part of a four-part debate. To read the previous installments, click on the links below:

Part 1, Monday: Peter Navarro
Part 2, Tuesday: Joshua Kurlantzick
Part 3, Wednesday: Peter Navarro

Thursday, May 31

Dear Peter,

You make several specific comments about my book, and I will try to address them one by one, as space allots. But much of your criticism implies that I am somehow "soft" on China, whatever that means. Nothing could be further from the truth. Anyone who knows me, or my writing, knows that I have authored numerous articles castigating China's policies in Xinjiang, Tibet, and many other places. Unlike many scholars, I've actually been to places like Xinjiang, absent a government minder, and I tried to do investigative research on the ground. I'd suggest that you read my review of several books on Xinjiang in Foreign Affairs, in which I describe the crackdown by China in that province. The point of my anecdote about Xinjiang is simply to show how rapidly parts of China have developed, including some of the most remote parts of the country.

But to address some of your specific complaints. First, I don't "soft-pedal" China's rapid military modernization. I'm not a military expert, and the book is not about military competition--it's about how China has built its soft power, and I allow later on in the book that China could use its growing appeal to pursue military aims that would threaten the United States. So, to examine China's military, I deferred to the experts who know more than I--the U.S. military. Our own Armed Forces do not believe China will be a peer competitor for decades, a claim fortified by interviews with the militaries most suspicious of China in Asia, like Singapore's and Vietnam's. Perhaps you will now say that the U.S. military "soft-pedals" China's competition.

Second, my point in the preface (and throughout the book) is that we don't know what kind of power China will become--not that it will be perfectly benign. The Bush administration came to power considering China could be a "strategic competitor," but even the most hawkish White House officials say that, on balance, China has wielded its power responsibly in some cases (like on the six-party talks) and irresponsibly in others (like on Darfur). But to judge that China will definitively use its power responsibly or irresponsibly is to prejudge the future--and, worse, to suggest once again that developing nations, which you believe are being preyed upon, are placid actors with no agency of their own. That's simply not the case. Developing nations are acting upon China at the same time as China acts upon them. To take one example: Although China wanted the East Asia Summit, inaugurated in 2005, to be an essentially China-centered affair, the nations of Southeast Asia, working together, made it a Southeast Asia-centered affair, in which China played a subsidiary role.

In fact, your points contradict themselves. You want to argue that China can savvily run rings around developing nations, which just sit by and take whatever China wants to give without complaint. But you also want to argue that China's policies are leading to a groundswell of opposition in developing nations that will come back to hurt China. Third, I don't deny China's HIV/AIDS epidemic or that the government played a horrendous role in it. My point is that there has been something of a learning process among Chinese officials on HIV/AIDS, and that the only plausible response to that learning process should be to support it--just as, despite the horrific policies of the government in Burma, the only plausible response to any effort the Burmese government makes on AIDS should be to support it, or more lives will be lost.

Fourth, on drugs, my point is that China for years had stupid policies, but they have begun in some cases to cooperate with the United States and Southeast Asian countries on major drug busts. Neither you nor I have enough expertise in the drug industry to claim that China is producing drugs with the tacit cooperation of government officials. I'm sure that anywhere in the world drugs are produced, some officials know about it or are involved. British Columbia produces the most potent marijuana in the world; Thailand imports and produces some of the harshest methamphetamines. Does this happen with the tacit cooperation of government officials? With the tacit cooperation of the Canadian and Thai cabinets? With the tacit cooperation of a few local government bosses in Canada and Thailand?

Fifth, as for whether China's policies are creating a "groundswell of resentment" against it, clearly, China has faced significant criticism from Western countries. But that is a red herring. My argument in the book is not that China can charm the West; I don't think it can, except perhaps in some parts of Europe, and the backlash over China's relations with Sudan and Iran shows that Western nations (and Japan) have vastly different views of China than developing countries do. What's more, I don't think the United States should not be charmed by China, but rather should regard China as a potential competitor--and a potential collaborator on issues of shared concern. (Regarding Western complaints about China's debt policies, these complaints seem a bit rich, given that many of the nations in Africa ran up high debts in the past due to World Bank and IMF packages.)

My argument in the book is that, thus far, China has effectively charmed many developing nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. I agree that there have been protests against China's labor policies in nations like Zambia and Peru. But these pale in comparison to the massive anti-American demonstrations held at summit after summit. I agree that there have been attacks on Chinese workers in Nigeria, but these pale in comparison to the number of attacks on Western oil workers in Nigeria, and these attacks on Chinese and Western workers have more to do with local militants' anger at all foreign companies in the Niger Delta than specific resentment against China. I also agree that, down the road, China could face very serious blowback, and I hope that people around the world, including in the developing world, have a clear-eyed understanding of China's labor, environment, and governance standards before they embark upon a substantial relationship with China.

But I challenge you to provide me with a series of significant polls this year demonstrating widespread negative opinion against China in Latin America, Africa, or Southeast Asia. I've spent my time on the ground, talking to opinion leaders across the developing world for years and amassing this data. Show me something that disproves it.

Finally, although I'm glad that we agree on how the United States has lost power because of the decline of American diplomacy, I'm not so gloomy as you about the future. The State Department has begun to recognize the need for American diplomats to be on the ground in hotspots, and Secretary of State Rice's plan to move more diplomats to developing nations--and to one- and two-person consulates--is a great idea. And Chinese diplomats, though far more skilled than in the past, are not yet "imperial masters." In Southeast Asia, a priority region for China, they are very sophisticated; in other parts of the world, like parts of Africa, they remain isolated and poorly linked up with local business and cultural elites. China still lacks the coordination to manage its aid effectively, and it winds up alienating local people when it does not deliver aid effectively.

Most important, China is not yet sure what it stands for. Ask a Chinese diplomat to describe what China stands for--what China's values are--in a few sentences. They can't. They don't know. And, in the long run, if you don't have values, you have no values for other people to aspire to.


By Joshua Kurlantzick