(Note: A slightly different version of this article has been published as “The China Conundrum” at https://www.chinausfocus.com/foreign-policy/the-china-conundrum.)
A Self-Confident China
Ever since China’s economic reforms began in 1978, the goal of US foreign policy has been to “manage” China’s rise so that it might become a worthy member of the community of nations dominated by the US and its allies. Republic and Democratic administrations alike have sent Beijing essentially the same message: The US supports a “peaceful, stable, and prosperous” China that will play by the rules internationally while reforming internally so as to become less autocratic if not democratic.
For a time, especially in the early decades of reform under Deng Xiaoping, China did seem to conform to Western expectations. It made no attempt to challenge US predominance in the Pacific (or anywhere else), its military modernization was of modest proportions, and its singular focus was on rapid economic development. Granted, the crackdown at Tiananmen in 1989 showed that political liberalization was not in the cards for China for some time. But overall, China’s behavior gave US and other leaders cause for optimism, particularly as the economic reforms opened China up to international trade and then investment, and as China began joining various regional and international organizations.
What foreign leaders failed to perceive was that China’s rise was not going to embrace liberalizing political changes—that actually China would instead seek to become a major economic player while sustaining the party-state system and preventing the equivalent of an Arab Spring. China’s growing wealth, founded on a distinctive “market socialism,” would also present a new model of development for Third World countries to follow, alternative to the Washington Consensus and its insistence on “structural adjustment.” The notion that prevailed in the US, for example in 2005, that China could be a “responsible stakeholder” in international affairs, meaning it would support US policy priorities, simply did not wash in Beijing. The stronger China became, the stronger the drive for influence, power, and an equal seat at the table: a “new type of great-power relationship,” as Xi Jinping would later tell Barack Obama.
Trump and China
That is China’s world that Donald Trump stumbled into. He was far from ready to “manage” China’s emergence. Far from it, he had no idea about China, his only experience having been as landlord of a Chinese bank with an office in Trump Tower. Inexperience and an emerging “America First” mentality led Trump to cast China as a villain as far back as 2011, when he told CNN that China was an “enemy” and needed to be punished for its unfair trade practices (http://cnnpressroom.blogs.cnn.com/2011/01/20/the-situation-room-with-wolf-blitzer-donald-trump-on-china-these-are-not-our-friends-these-are-our-enemies/). He also held China responsible for a climate change “hoax,” lost US jobs, and currency manipulation. Shift to the present and we can see that Trump’s approach to China hasn’t changed: China remains the villain, preventing North Korea’s denuclearization, stealing US intellectual property, building up its military, and still refusing to level the playing field on trade. His national security and intelligence community may be focused on Russia, but Trump is riveted on China, notwithstanding his supposed friendship with Xi Jinping (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/after-detente-with-north-korea-trump-increasingly-takes-aim-at-a-new-foe–china/2018/08/18/077ca942-a2ef-11e8-83d2-70203b8d7b44_story.html).
Thus we have the National Security Council, in its 2017 strategy paper, casting both China and Russia as the leading threats to the US. What that assessment is doing is giving Beijing and Moscow incentives to tighten their relationship. Militarily, Russian sales of sophisticated arms are increasing, as are large-scale joint exercises. Economically, their trade has greatly expanded (www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/war-games-and-business-deals-russia-china-send-a-signal-to-washington/2018/09/11/35371ff2-b5b9-11e8-a2c5-3187f427e253_story.html). Clearly, they are sending Trump a message even though Sino-Russian cooperation is well short of an alliance.
Meanwhile, the US-China trade war seems to be providing China with another gift: new diplomatic successes. China’s relationship with Japan has suddenly warmed; Prime Minister Abe Shinzo will be visiting Beijing in October, after he and Xi issued a joint statement in defense of the World Trade Organization and globalization, both of which Trump detests. Economic ties with Germany and South Korea have also improved in the wake of US-China differences (www.washingtonpost.com/world/2018/09/14/trumps-trade-wars-chinas-unexpected-win-more-friends/?utm_term=.e9614bd5d057). The “China threat” narrative is also harming US businesses and consumers, undermining any prospect of a nuclear deal with North Korea, ceding Asia-Pacific commercial opportunities to China, and preventing cooperation on climate change.
The difficult task of promoting improved human rights conditions in China is now even more difficult. On the rare occasion when Washington raises its voice to defend human rights, it is more easily ignored by Beijing. An example is the US threat of sanctions in response to the incarceration and “reeducation” of as many as one million Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province. The threat is hardly likely to register with Beijing while a trade war is going on. And it puts the onus on the Europeans to prioritize human rights over another hefty trade package with China. So far they don’t seem anxious to sacrifice profits for Muslims.
Coming to Grips with China
China’s role in world politics is changing dramatically. It no longer seeks to “hide its profile and bide its time,” as Deng Xiaoping had advised. To the contrary, many Chinese foreign policy specialists speak of a post-American world, one that is not merely multipolar but in which China is the US’s equal. (See Post #188.) Some Chinese specialists maintain that China will soon eclipse the US in the Asia-Pacific balance of power (https://globalasia.org/v11no1/cover/the-shifting-us-china-balance-of-power-in-the-western-pacific-getting-the-transition-right_zhang-tuosheng). In this new Asia order, China has the ability to defend its territorial claims in nearby waters, and possibly even deter the US from protecting Taiwan. China can step in when US relations with longtime allies fray (e.g., South Korea and Turkey), challenge US policy on high-profile issues (e.g., Iran and North Korea), be the lead voice on globalization, have the financial resources to buy economic dominance and strategic access in developing countries, and be a global leader in energy conservation.
America’s China problem is therefore no longer about “managing China’s rise.” It is about finding ways to more deeply engage China on common problems, such as climate change and energy, while also establishing rules of the road to avoid military confrontations in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. Neither of these paths excludes standing up for human rights (by either side, it should be added), negotiating better trade and investment terms, and confronting aggressive behavior in or beyond East Asia. What they do exclude is treatment of the other as an enemy. Inevitably, China is going to be a global military power to match its widening economic reach, which now extends to Latin America. The US will have to adjust to that new reality and invest more in common security than in containment and trade wars. And that adjustment, as two former US officials and Asia analysts have recently written, starts with “a new degree of humility about the United States’ ability to change China” (Kurt M. Campbell and Ely Ratner, “The China Reckoning,” Foreign Affairs, March-April 2018.)
Excellent summary of post 1978 Chinese economic positions and bringing us up to the showdown today.
Commerce Secretary touts that China is “out bullets” to retaliate and that the US can weather a temporary storm better than China.
Will China start pulling back from buying US securities next?
Very nice overview. Three small editorial adds:
* reference to re-education of Uyghers recently warranted a long and chilling front-page article in the NY Times (which used Uighers spelling). * 6th line from bottom noting that China’s economic reach now extends to Latin America: Africa, too—as much or more so than Latin America? * shouldn’t China’s new economic reach also include mention of the New Silk Road? I read another recent NY Times article about how Malaysia is having second thoughts about Chinese entanglements.
All good points, Mike. Yes, China’s Africa economic involvements far exceed those in Latin America. And the “Belt and Road” initiative is larger still. But I mentioned Latin America in particular because it’s in America’s backyard, and is less well known. As for Malaysia, it’s just one place with second thoughts; others are in Africa, where there have been charges of Chinese “neocolonialism” for some time.
“An example is the US threat of sanctions in response to the incarceration and “reeducation” of as many as one million Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province”
You might wish to reexamine this claim which is of dubious provenance…
Actually, I have a huge bibliography (9 pages, which I’ll be happy to send you) of reports, including video, on the Chinese internment. Some examples, compiled by Magnus Fiskesjö [firstname.lastname@example.org].
1. News reports from 2018; then, a section with more academic studies on Xinjiang
2. Video: BBC Newsnight, Published on Aug 30, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3DazSCxfUdE&feature=youtu.be
3. Human Rights Watch report: “Eradicating Ideological Viruses”: China’s Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang’s Muslims
4. ‘Thoroughly reforming them towards a healthy heart attitude’: China’s political re-education campaign in Xinjiang. By Adrian Zenz. Central Asian Survey, Published online: 05 Sep 2018. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02634937.2018.1507997
Thank you for going to the effort of compiling a list of sources. May I ask, did you read the article from Global Research? Though you’ve stated there is ample evidence of the internment of Uighur people the article contends that, in fact, the opposite is true.
Your first link is not particularly convincing. The BBC is not an unbiased source when reporting on official rivals. There is a photo shown of about a thousand prisoners which of itself is evidence of not much. The report admits that there is an extremist element in the Uighur community, that its adherents are engaged in terrorism within China and abroad. Given this fact it is not surprising that there are Uighurs imprisoned for public safety reasons. Two unidentified supposedly Uighur men are interviewed but how can we trust their testimony if they’re not even prepared to show their faces on camera?
Your link to Human Rights Watch is not at all convincing as it is this agency that comes in for particular criticism from the Global Research article. This from the article…
“On its tax forms, CHRD lists its address as the Washington, DC office of Human Rights Watch. HRW has long been criticized for its revolving door with the US government and its excessively disproportionate focus on designated enemies of Washington like China, Venezuela, Syria, and Russia.
Human Rights Watch did not respond to an email from the Grayzone inquiring about its relationship with CHRD.”
From your fourth link we have this…
“By the end of the year, reports emerged that some ethnic-minority townships had detained up to 10% of the entire population, and that in Uyghur-dominated Kashgar Prefecture alone, the number of interned persons had reached 120,000 (The Guardian, 25 January 2018).”
I think it’s fair to ask who is making these “reports”? The Global Research article contends that they are primarily coming from Western government linked “activists”. The fact the above is printed in the Guardian, another establishment mouth piece further tarnishes the veracity of the claims made. Again, this from the article…
“Reuters and other Western outlets have attempted to fill in the gaps left by McDougall, referring to reports made by so-called “activist group” the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD). Conveniently left out of the story is that this organization is headquartered in Washington, DC.
CHRD, which receives hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from unnamed governments, advocates full-time against the Chinese government and has spent years campaigning on behalf of extreme right-wing opposition figures.
CHRD is not at all transparent about its funding or personnel. Its annual reports contain notes stating, “This report has been produced with the financial support of generous donors.” But the donors are never named.
Publicly available 990 IRS filing forms reviewed by the Grayzone show that the organization is substantially funded by government grants. In fact, in 2015 virtually all of the organization’s revenue came from government grants.”
The most recent US military posture review has named China as one of its two predominant threats. Given this reality I believe a certain amount of scepticism must be made of claims emanating from US/Western government officials, and organisations linked to them, in regards to China’s human rights situation. Demonisation of the “rival” government is standard operating procedure before any escalation of hostilities. I hope you share this view and act accordingly.
Readers can judge for themselves whether your disparagement of each and every source really is somehow phony. Yes, “a certain amount of skepticism” is always warranted, but when you have such an extraordinary abundance of reports worldwide, from NGOs, journalists, and academics, as well as rare testimony from Uyghurs who simply can’t be labeled terrorists, you have to listen. My blog makes clear that I’m not anti-China; but on the matter of Chinese policy toward ethnic minorities, Beijing has much to answer for.