China's Risky Bet Against History
Image Credit: Flickr / daren_ck

China's Risky Bet Against History

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US relations with China hit a rough patch this year. The world’s sole superpower and Asia’s largest rising power jousted over the South China Sea, clashed over how to respond to North Korea’s sinking of the South Korean ship Cheonan, and for a time shelved military exchanges. Is this the beginning of an enduring rivalry or merely a temporary downturn?

The answer lies in the past as much as the present – but history provides some cause for concern about the future of US-China relations. A careful survey of the early twentieth century reveals that rising autocracies inherently and predictably spawn mistrust, and that their ascent culminates in rivalry, if not outright military conflict. By contrast, rising powers with rule of law and transparent governance offer multiple avenues for reassurance, meaning they can rise without provoking strategic competition.

Seen in this light, China has made a bet against history. Since Deng Xiaoping, successive Chinese leaders have assumed that economic modernization would assure the world of China’s benign intentions without requiring changes to one-party rule at home. Yet China’s economic interdependence with the world and references to ‘peaceful development’ and ‘harmonious society’ have done little to assuage the growing anxiety in Washington and Asian capitals about Beijing’s strategic trajectory. China’s bet against history is failing.

The United States has also made a gamble. Since Richard Nixon, successive US administrations have assumed that integrating China into the international system would transform China before China could transform the system. US engagement has paved the way for China’s integration into the global economy and membership in most international organizations, yet more than two decades after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, political reform remains on ice. Meanwhile, China has begun to transition from a rule taker to a rule maker in international affairs. This means that although it’s still too early to say that the US bet was wrong, our ability to say it was right is increasingly in doubt.

The United States can’t make China a democracy. Indeed, sudden political pluralism in China without the stabilizing underpinnings provided by the rule of law and good governance would only increase the risks of illiberal democracy and cause even greater uncertainty about China’s strategic trajectory. (And the current generation of Chinese leadership is anyway unlikely to introduce political reforms that would jeopardize the Communist Party’s singular hold on power).

But at the same time, both the United States and China need to recognize that economic interdependence and efforts at mutual diplomatic reassurance are no substitute for evidence of greater transparency and liberalism within China if we’re to build real strategic trust. This message should be delivered loud and clear by the White House and the State Department, with consistent demonstrations of support for human rights, media freedom, rule of law and civil society within China.

In Asia’s burgeoning multilateral architecture, the United States should work with other like-minded democracies to reinforce the theme that meaningful confidence-building depends on transparency and participatory government within the member states and not on the outdated principle of ‘non-interference in internal affairs’ that Beijing asserts should guide regional integration. The case must be made within the region that stronger institutions and citizen participation will ultimately create stronger states, a lesson well demonstrated by the democratic transitions of Korea and Indonesia.

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