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Debates

US China policy

20 Jan 2010 14:03

Hold on to your hats — US-China relations are about to get ugly.

Obama may have turned out to be something of a diplomatic masochist, but even he has his limits. Having been rolled in China and dragged through the mud by the Chinese in Copenhagen, his serenity in dealing with Beijing over the past year appears to be giving way to a combination of indignation and frustration, and a desire to reassert US dominance in the face of China’s new triumphalism.

Last week, Hillary Clinton was dispatched to Asia with a simple message for the region: 'America's back'. That wouldn't have been music to Chinese ears, though the impact of her message was dulled somewhat by the fact that she canceled her trip to attend to a more urgent matter on the other side of the world, and, ironically, never made it past Hawaii. Welcome back.

COMMENTS

20 Jan 2010 16:33

Raoul says in his latest post that American commentators 'have only just begun to question the bizarre but conventional expectation in Washington that a stronger, more prosperous China would also be more cooperative'.

Bizarre, perhaps. But conventional? Who in Washington actually believes that a more prosperous China will necessarily be more cooperative? I would be very surprised if this is the received wisdom among foreign policy thinkers and practitioners.

I think we need to distinguish between, on the one hand, the expectation that China will develop more America-friendly positions, and on the other hand, the expectation that China will acknowledge the authority of the major conventions and institutions of international policy. There may be some advocates of China engagement who take the former view, but I'd guess the majority take the latter.

COMMENTS

25 Jan 2010 08:46

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.

COMMENTS

27 Jan 2010 10:27

It's hard enough describing what China is now. Describing where it might be going stretches the standard international relations lexicon. The standard categories of 'status quo' or 'revisionist' power aren't much help. No wonder the panda huggers and the dragon slayers of Washington can never resolve the argument.

Mark's description of the Chinese juggernaut is yet another accounting of the many reasons China should be a status quo power – a booming economy that has now become the world's largest car market and the world's largest merchandise trader exporter. The Chinese Communist Party wants to freeze its present domestic power in perpetuity. And sitting on that huge dollar mountain it has accumulated, China has no interest in breaking down the American-designed global trade system.

COMMENTS

28 Jan 2010 12:57

I like Graeme's description of China as 'status quo-tidal', but I'd like to offer an alternative way of looking at the question of whether China is a status quo or a revisionist power. I think it all depends which 'status quo' we mean. If we mean the stable, open international order that Asia has enjoyed for the past forty years and that has been so essential to China's economic transformation, then yes, China is absolutely a status quo power – it wants to see all that preserved and strengthened. 

But if the status quo we mean is US primacy in Asia, then China is quite clearly a revisionist power. I have no doubt China seeks an end to US primacy in Asia.

Of course, for the past forty years, the two conceptions of status quo I've mentioned here have been synonymous: stability in Asia has depended on US primacy, and no one has been able to imagine any other way to keep Asia peaceful. That view is still widely held, especially in America. On this view, any challenge to US primacy is a challenge to peace and order – revisionist, in other words.

COMMENTS

28 Jan 2010 16:10

Robert Flawith writes:

Graeme Dobell's mission to move beyond the mutually exclusive dichotomy of 'revisionist power' or 'status quo power' to more accurately describe the role of a mercurial China in the future of international relations is an admirable one.

However, his explanation of China as a 'status quo-tidal' power seemed to me to fail the basic logic test. He writes that the CCP likes that part of the status quo where the relative economic and military power tide is flowing in Beijing's favour.

So, China likes the status quo, so long as the status quo keeps revising itself in Beijing's favour? That sounds like a description of a plain-old revisionist power to me.

Personally, I welcome China's rise and do not believe China poses a threat to the international community, however I also think it is wise to hedge against future security uncertainties in this area. I'm not sure if this makes me a 'Panda Slayer' or a 'Dragon Hugger'...

COMMENTS

29 Jan 2010 15:44

Raoul's reply to my post on America's China policy begins by acknowledging that 'you would be hard pressed to find anyone' who agrees with the proposition that a growing China will necessarily become more deferential to the US. Yet in the next paragraph he says that this assumption 'continues to shape Washington's...approach towards China'.

How can both things be true? If nobody believes the premise, how come it shapes US policy?

I would also like to see evidence of any prominent American scholar or policy-maker who really believes that Chinese economic development would make China 'a bit like Japan' with interests 'virtually indistinguishable from those of the US'. There may be figures who believe such things, but I would be startled if it is a majority view or even a very popular one.

Certainly, various presidents and diplomats have hoped that China's 'coming out' might make them more amenable to American views, but none of them expected it, which is why each successive administration has continued to hedge against China in various diplomatic and military ways.

COMMENTS

2 Feb 2010 15:09

I liked Graeme's description of China as a 'status quo-tidal' power and agree that China has plenty of reasons for liking the status quo when it comes to the international economy: after all, the current system has proved to be a great environment for facilitating the kind of rapid catch-up growth that has allowed China's economy to grow at an average annual rate approaching 10% since 1980.*

Yet such is China's size that its economic rise is nevertheless undermining that same status quo. Take the two examples of international trade and international investment.

As a major trading power, China has done rather well out of the current global trading system. China's arrival as a key trading power was sealed with its accession to the WTO at the end of 2001, and WTO-monitored and enforced checks on protectionism have helped allow China to grow market share from less than 1% of world merchandise exports in 1980 to a little over 4% by 2001, and to almost 9% by 2008 (and probably into double-digits by the end of last year). 

COMMENTS

16 Feb 2010 16:21

Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson has made a claim about US-China relations very similar to one made by my colleague Raoul Heinrichs some weeks ago, to which I took exception (the entire debate thread is here). Samuelson says:

The prevailing American assumption was that as China became richer, its interests and values would converge with those of the United States.

Samuelson provides no examples to back up his claim that this is a 'prevailing assumption', which just reinforces the scepticism I expressed in response to Raoul. Nevertheless, Samuelson argues that recent differences between the US and China show this prevailing assumption to be 'fundamentally' wrong. Good thing, then, that it never really prevailed anyway.

COMMENTS