U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in China this week to a barrage of hostile commentary in official news outlets over alleged U.S. meddling in regional territorial disputes.
“The United States should stop its role as a sneaky troublemaker sitting behind some nations in the region and pulling strings,” a foreign policy specializing wrote in an article for Xinhua, the state-run news agency.
Clinton struggled to assuage Beijing fears that the U.S. is trying to sabotage what Chinese officials describe as its “peaceful rise.”
“Our two nations are trying to do something that has never been done in history,” she said, “which is to write a new answer to the question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet.”
Nevertheless, “the hits kept coming,” the Washington Post reports:
One explanation for the tensions on both sides is the simultaneous leadership transition underway — with a presidential election in the United States and a similarly brutal competition for the handful of seats on China’s ruling council that has been cloaked in secrecy.
One of the only signs of the titanic struggle rumored to be going on between factions of the Communist Party here is the recent string of scandals that some contenders have used to edge out rivals for the top seats and strengthen their own position.
The regime is touchy in part because its coming leadership transition has been disrupted by the Bo Xilai crisis, says Cheng Li, an expert on elite Chinese politics at Washington’s Brookings Institution:
Because Mr Bo’s dramatic downfall has so clearly exposed the affluence, corruption and abuse of power that pervades many levels of the party, it has sparked a legitimacy crisis for China’s top politicians as they face an increasingly cynical public.
“This is more than factional politics. It is the very nature of the legitimacy crisis,” said Li, referring to Bo’s forthcoming trial. All party factions “believe they should punish Bo Xilai in a very severe way for the sake of saving their faction and saving the Communist party, but that does not mean that they have the same ideas in terms of real punishment”.
Highlighting the sensitivity of the subject, the terms “Wang Lijun” and “WLJ” were blocked on China’s popular microblogging platform weibo on Wednesday night. Nevertheless some users used puns to comment on the charges.
U.S. strategy towards China has been based on the idea of “strategic reassurance,” as defined in September 2009, by then deputy secretary of state James Steinberg: “Just as we and our allies must make clear that we are prepared to welcome China’s ‘arrival’ … as a prosperous and successful power, China must reassure the rest of the world that its development and growing global role will not come at the expense of [the] security and well-being of others.”
But some analysts suggest that it will be hard to reconcile the interests of a democracy committed to openness and pluralism with those of an opaque and increasingly nationalistic autocracy.
The U.S. has pursued a two-pronged strategy of engagement and balancing, but recent events raise “serious doubts about both elements of this strategy,” writes Aaron F. Friedberg, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.
“Decades of trade and talk have not hastened China’s political liberalization,” he notes. “Indeed, the last few years have been marked by an intensified crackdown on domestic dissent. At the same time, the much-touted economic relationship between the two Pacific powers has become a major source of friction.”
“Chinese strategists assume that a country as powerful as the United States will use its power to preserve and enhance its privileges and will treat efforts by other countries to protect their interests as threats to its own security,” according to Columbia University’s Andrew J. Nathan (above) and RAND’s Andrew Scobell:
This assumption leads to a pessimistic conclusion: as China rises, the United States will resist. The United States uses soothing words; casts its actions as a search for peace, human rights, and a level playing field; and sometimes offers China genuine assistance. But the United States is two-faced. It intends to remain the global hegemon and prevent China from growing strong enough to challenge it.
Chinese analysts believe that the United States “possesses potent ideological weapons and the willingness to use them,” they write in Foreign Affairs:
After World War II, the United States took advantage of its position as the dominant power to enshrine American principles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments and to install what China sees as Western-style democracies in Japan and, eventually, South Korea, Taiwan, and other countries. Chinese officials contend that the United States uses the ideas of democracy and human rights to delegitimize and destabilize regimes that espouse alternative values, such as socialism and Asian-style developmental authoritarianism.
So why can’t we all just get along?
Prospects for peaceful co-existence are undermined by the nature of the Chinese regime, Friedberg writes in Foreign Affairs:
Today, China’s ruling elites are both arrogant and insecure. In their view, continued rule by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is essential to China’s stability, prosperity, and prestige; it is also, not coincidentally, vital to their own safety and comfort. Although they have largely accepted some form of capitalism in the economic sphere, they remain committed to preserving their hold on political power.
The CCP’s determination to maintain control informs the regime’s threat perceptions, goals, and policies. Anxious about their legitimacy, China’s rulers are eager to portray themselves as defenders of the national honor. Although they believe China is on track to become a world power on par with the United States, they remain deeply fearful of encirclement and ideological subversion. And despite Washington’s attempts to reassure them of its benign intentions, Chinese leaders are convinced that the United States aims to block China’s rise and, ultimately, undermine its one-party system of government.
Many Chinese analysts believe the ending of the Cold War exposed the United States as “a revisionist power that tries to reshape the global environment even further in its favor,” say Scobell and Nathan, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:
And perhaps most disturbing to the Chinese, the United States has shown its aggressive designs by promoting so-called color revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. As Liu Jianfei, director of the foreign affairs division of the Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party, wrote in 2005, “The U.S. has always opposed communist ‘red revolutions’ and hates the ‘green revolutions’ in Iran and other Islamic states. What it cares about is not ‘revolution’ but ‘color.’ It supported the ‘rose,’ ‘orange’, and ‘tulip’ revolutions because they served its democracy promotion strategy.” As Liu and other top Chinese analysts see it, the United States hopes “to spread democracy further and turn the whole globe ‘blue.’”
The failure to secure an entente between the U.S. and China is the result “not of a lack of effort but of a fundamental divergence of interests,” writes Friedberg, author of A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia.
Although limited cooperation on specific issues might be possible, the ideological gap between the two nations is simply too great, and the level of trust between them too low, to permit a stable modus vivendi. What China’s current leaders ultimately want — regional hegemony — is not something their counterparts in Washington are willing to give.
Within China’s expanding sphere of influence, U.S. firms could find their access to markets, products, and natural resources constricted by trade arrangements dictated by Beijing. The prospects for political reform in the countries along China’s periphery would also be diminished as long as the CCP remained in control. And from its secure Asian base, Beijing could offer aid and comfort to authoritarian regimes in other regions.
The ideological fissure between Washington and Beijing is also evident in their highly perspectives on democracy, human rights and civil society.
“Is there such a thing as ‘democracy, Chinese style’? asks Tian Wei is the co-host of “Dialogue,” a primetime talk show broadcast by China’s CCTV:
Hu Shih, the Chinese intellectual and diplomat, who in 1939 was nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature, argued 100 years ago that ‘behind the monarchs and the aristocrats, a quiet, peaceful, original form of democracy has been dominating China.’ He backed up this assertion with ancient teachings from sages such as Mencius, who argued ‘min gui jun qing,’ which can be translated as ‘the masses are the root of a country; the rulers are less important’—which is just one of Hu’s many findings that make him very worth digging into during today’s debates.”
But most Western commentators are dismissive of “democracy with Chinese characteristics,” while Beijing views U.S. actions through a similarly skeptical prism of three reinforcing perspectives, Nathan and Scobell contend:
First, Chinese analysts see their country as heir to an agrarian, eastern strategic tradition that is pacifistic, defense-minded, nonexpansionist, and ethical. In contrast, they see Western strategic culture — especially that of the United States — as militaristic, offense-minded, expansionist, and selfish.
Second, although China has embraced state capitalism with vigor, the Chinese view of the United States is still informed by Marxist political thought, which posits that capitalist powers seek to exploit the rest of the world. China expects Western powers to resist Chinese competition for resources and higher-value-added markets. ….Third, …the most influential body of international relations theory in China is so-called offensive realism, which holds that a country will try to control its security environment to the full extent that its capabilities permit. According to this theory, the United States cannot be satisfied with the existence of a powerful China and therefore seeks to make the ruling regime there weaker and more pro-American. Chinese analysts see evidence of this intent in Washington’s calls for democracy and its support for what China sees as separatist movements in Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang.
But even a democratic transition in China would not erase tension with the U.S., says Friedberg:
If history is any guide, the process of liberalization might be accompanied by internal turmoil and an increased risk of conflict with other nations. A democratic China would no doubt seek a stronger voice in regional affairs, and its aims would not always align with those of the United States. In the longer run, however, the prospects for U.S.-Chinese cooperation would be greatly enhanced. A government confident of its legitimacy would have no reason to fear encirclement and subversion by the world’s democracies. Meanwhile, with other countries less likely to see China as a threat, Beijing would find it easier to reach mutually acceptable settlements with its neighbors, including Taiwan.
At a time of political turbulence in China, “it would be dangerous for American policymakers to try to shape an intraparty competition that they do not fully understand,” Friedberg suggests:
This does not mean that China’s political evolution is a matter of indifference; far from it. But any outside power’s influence over the outcome will be indirect and long term. Democratic countries should continue to support the growth of civil society in China, promote the freest possible flow of ideas into and inside China, and speak out in defense of those who take risks for real reform.
The optimal long term strategy for both China and the West “is to create a new equilibrium of power that maintains the current world system, but with a larger role for China,” Nathan and Scobell conclude:
China has good reasons to seek that outcome. Even after it becomes the world’s largest economy, its prosperity will remain dependent on the prosperity of its global rivals (and vice versa), including the United States and Japan. The richer China becomes, the greater will be its stake in the security of sea-lanes, the stability of the world trade and financial regimes, nonproliferation, the control of global climate change, and cooperation on public health. China will not get ahead if its rivals do not also prosper. And Chinese strategists must come to understand that core U.S. interests — in the rule of law, regional stability, and open economic competition — do not threaten China’s security.
Nevertheless, the democratic West “should continue to push back against Chinese efforts to remake global legal regimes in ways that do not serve the interests of the West. This is especially important in the case of the human rights regime, a set of global rules and institutions that will help determine the durability of the liberal world order the United States has long sought to uphold.”