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China to be more cooperative?

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This post is part of the US China policy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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25 January 2010 08:46


This post is part of the US China policy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Is it a conventional expectation in Washington that a stronger China will also be more cooperative, as I recently suggested? Sam’s doubtful, and in a number of respects, I can understand his scepticism.

The notion that a more powerful country will be more deferential seems so counterintuitive, so at odds with the weight of historical experience, that you really would be hard pressed to find anyone, let alone a serious analyst of international affairs, who openly agreed with it.

And yet, strange as it seems, that is precisely the assumption that has operated at the heart of US China policy for two decades, and which continues to shape Washington’s largely bipartisan approach towards China today.

America’s policy of engagement towards China — with its emphasis on trade and investment, on facilitating China’s growth by assuming responsibility for regional stability and security, and on integrating China into the institutions that make up America’s international order — was always intended, or at least justified, as a means to an end. The objective, like American strategy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union during the Cold War, was nothing less than the wholesale transformation of China itself.

Internally, engagement was intended to democratise China by creating economic conditions that would eventually necessitate political liberalisation. Externally, it was just as paternalistic, designed to attenuate China’s great power ambitions by ensuring that Beijing’s interests were fundamentally enmeshed in, rather than arrayed against, the status-quo, a bit like Japan today.

As China became more prosperous, so too, it was imagined, would its stake in the international arrangements that had abetted its rise become more deeply entrenched — to the point where its interests would be virtually indistinguishable from those of the US.

Thus, Robert Zoellick famously called on China to become a ‘responsible stakeholder’, a formulation in which ‘responsibility’ was defined not only by China’s willingness to acknowledge the conventions and institutions of international policy, as Sam suggests, but also its willingness to accommodate itself to US primacy in Asia (more or les indefinitely) and adhere to American preferences on a range of important international issues, including Iran, North Korea and climate change, among many others.

Of course, from Washington’s perspective, things haven’t exactly gone to plan. As Gideon Rachman recently noted, China’s economic miracle has not brought with it inexorable political change, and, strategically, China has not grown up to resemble post-Cold War Japan. By contrast, Beijing has a narrow, clear-eyed view of its national interests, which it is unwilling, especially as its power and wealth accumulates, to subordinate to those of the US. 

Photo by Flickr user chinadialogue.net, used under a Creative Commons license.

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