The China We're Stuck With

News Abroad

Warren I. Cohen is Distinguished University Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. This article originally appeared at the website of the Columbia University Press.

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt spoke to a Chinese emissary of America’s hope for a strong, stable, and prosperous China. He professed to believe that such a China would be in the interest of the United States. Vice President Walter Mondale repeated Roosevelt’s words when he visited Beijing in 1979. In the early years of the new millennium, China has become strong, prosperous and reasonably stable—but many Americans are not so sure that’s good for them or their country.

Apprehension about the future of Chinese-American relations derives only marginally from the fact that China remains a nominally communist country in which the Communist Party monopolizes power. Unlike the days of the Cold War, when Soviet nuclear power loomed over us, few Americans fear a Chinese attack on the United States or the spread of communism. They do fear, however, the possibility of China outstripping the United States, China as # 1 in economic power and global influence.

For the United States, China’s recent surge has been a mixed blessing. For some years, China’s purchase of US debt has kept the American economy afloat, enabling its people to buy and enjoy cheap Chinese goods. Similarly, China’s economic growth has been the engine that drives the economies of its Asian neighbors. The boom years that much of the world enjoyed in the 1990s were in part a result of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, of China’s leap into the global marketplace. And however grudgingly, Beijing has moved toward acceptance of some international norms of behavior as evidenced by its role in the United Nations and in the World Trade Organization. But there are obvious caveats: American (and European) workers have lost jobs to lower paid Chinese workers and the undervalued Chinese currency has had a negative impact on the economies of the United States and the European Union.

Moreover, Chinese leaders share few Western values or priorities and there is little evidence of mutual trust between Beijing and Washington. Most recently, China has obstructed efforts to halt Iran’s march toward becoming a nuclear power. It has done too little to help the international community in its efforts to end North Korea’s nuclear threat and it has sustained vicious dictatorships in Burma, Sudan, and Zimbabwe

At home, its human rights record, much improved over the days of Mao Zedong, is nonetheless appalling—and trending toward becoming even worse. Not only dissidents, but lawyers who attempt to defend them and other victims of Chinese officialdom are subjected to beatings, torture, long imprisonments—and disappearances. Tibetans and less familiar minority groups such as the Uighers of Xinjiang are discriminated against in their own territories and often brutally repressed.

And then there is the issue of Taiwan. Within the intelligence community, the Taiwan Strait is frequently referred to as the most dangerous place in the world, the only spot where two nuclear armed Great Powers have confronted each other in the past—and might again. American presidents have interpreted the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 as a commitment to provide Taiwan with military equipment it requires for its defense. Each time Washington approves an arms sale to Taiwan, Beijing roars its disapproval—as it has in recent days. A defenseless Taiwan, without expectation of American intervention to protect it from the growing power of the People’s Republic, would presumably be intimidated into surrendering its de facto independence and submitting to reunification with the mainland. The United States insists that reunification can only be achieved when the people of democratic Taiwan accept it without coercion—an event not likely to occur in the lifetime of anyone reading this.

Much of Beijing’s current outrage with American policy toward Taiwan, with American sympathy for the Dalai Lama, is based upon the conviction that China is a rapidly rising power and the United States is in steep decline. Chinese leaders, perceiving a change in the correlation of forces in their favor, expect Washington to behave more deferentially. They probably don’t expect the koutou, the prostrations and head-bangings that the emperors demanded of foreign visitors back in the days when China was on top of the world, but the rough equivalent—acceptance of Chinese values and priorities—would be welcome. Of late, American scholars and diplomats have been struck by the growing arrogance of their Chinese counterparts, lectures on the superiority of the Chinese model to the American model, the failure of American democracy, American economic profligacy, even on human rights in the United States. This will only get worse until we get our house in order, until we can demonstrate again that democracy works and that our economic system can provide jobs and a decent standard of living for all Americans.

The Chinese have been wrong before about America’s decline, their analysts predicting it on the eve of the great expansion of American economic and military power in the 1990s. We can only hope to prove them wrong again—before they do much more harm to the international system. In the interim, our choices are very limited. China is too strong, too important to the world economy to be ignored or pressured into doing what we believe to be right. That leaves us with the unappealing policy of “engagement,” to which Washington has ultimately turned under both Democratic and Republican administrations for decades. It means coexisting with a difficult, unsavory regime, relying on diplomacy to persuade Beijing that what we want is in its interest and accepting what little progress can be made.

Historically, China has overreached and self-destructed whenever it played the role of hegemonic power. The arrogance it currently exhibits suggests it is headed in that direction again. But it is not in the interests of the United States for China to collapse. It remains in our interest to have a strong, stable, and prosperous China. Optimally it would also be friendly and democratic. Don’t hold your breath.

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Arnold Shcherban - 3/19/2010

The other point is the author's automatic stance on the Taiwan's side.
China does not threaten military interference nowadays,... unless Taiwan - part of China - declares its independence status effectively denying of being part of Chinese territory.
Every sovereign country in the world (the US, inclusive) would do the same in response to some part of its population deciding to declare sovereignty, despite the will of the majority.
It is interesting (and perhaps - telling) that the states of this country has no constitutional right of secession from the Union, the right that this country (the US), however, often ENFORCES on behalf of territories of some foreign countries, as allegedly being unequivocal, almost divine.
Double standards, as usual?

Arnold Shcherban - 3/19/2010

Well, Mr. Neilsen, your apprehensions
about growing Chinese economic and political clout may be well-taken, but I don't think that in the foreseeable future it can become as much threat to world's peace and stability and other countries' sovereignty and independence as the US has been in 20th century and continue to be now (especially in the Third World).
On the other hand, the developments in other fast-paced nations, such as India, Brazilia, and perhaps a couple more, might assure a certain cap on the Chinese arrogance, should it become more powerful than others, the mitigating circumstance that unfortunately(?) has come out of existence with the fall of the "Evil Empire".

omar ibrahim baker - 3/7/2010

I believe I was categorical why I believe the third World welcomes the advent of China; namely
- "for the confidence it imparts" that the third world is NOT doomed to remain what it is now :
underdeveloped, exploited by the West and poor
-" for the regression of American imperialism it entails."
I believe the whole world would, or should, welcome that having seen the outcome of an omnipotent, unchallenged and unchallengeable USA.

NO more of that if not in the immediate future then in the near future!

Lars Bjorn Nielsen - 3/6/2010

The real problem depends on Who You are, and what You want.
What I have have written is, that the upcome of china will fundamentally change the political balance in the world. But I have not said, whether this will be good or bad, because I do┬┤nt know.
You however suggest, that the upcome of china will be good, because China is a third world country. But do You really believe, that third world countries have anything in commun except being poor ?
And now China is going to be rich, so why do You think, they will behave better than other rich countries. Because China is a oneparty state ? because it suppresses the inhabitants of Tibet and other minorities ?
Because, it will not allow thw peole of Taiwan to have their own state ?
Because thousands of criminals are executed in China each year ?

omar ibrahim baker - 3/5/2010

The real problem is with those that can NOT tolerate anybody bettering them in any domain.
That would encompass the West in general and the USA in particular.
Neither can grasp the fact that others can do better than them and , in the process, compell them to relinquish their world leading role.

The third world does heartily welcome such a development for the confidence it imparts and the for the regression of American imperialism it entails.

Lars Bjorn Nielsen - 3/5/2010

The real problem with China is, that it has according to the CIA factbook a GDP today about 60% of the USA measured by purchasing power (P.P), and an economic growth rate of roughly 10% p.a. The average growth rate of the U.S. is app. 3%
The average chinese income measured in P.P is 1/7 of the US.
It may thus take China 30-40 years to reach the average income of the US, and at that time, the chinese GDP will be 4 times that of the US.
China has a savings rate of more than 40%, which today allows it to invest about 300 billion dollars a year in foreign countries. In 30-40 years, this will maybe increase to 2.000 - 2.500 billion dollars a year.

Chinas GDP will probably exceed that of the US in only 10 years, and after that, China may very well achieve to be the main financial center of the world, because of its great savings rate. Probably, the Yuan will be as important as the dollar is today, and in years to come, chinese will be as important as english for businessmen.

And as the chinese GDP expands, China may very well build a navy greater than the US navy and challenge the US in aerospace.

The only country, which may equal China in 30-40 years will be India, but as Indias GDP is only 40% of Chinas, and its growth rate a little slower, India will probably not be a real match for China in the next 50-60 years.

Of course, everything depends on the ability of China to maintain its economic growth and political tability, and maybe China will remain a peacefull country living in harmony with the rest of the world, but even then, old superpowers as US, Russia (and the EU), must prepare for a new world order, where China (and India) will be the main power(s).

omar ibrahim baker - 3/1/2010

Is it NOT that the pertinent question about the future should be about the USA with which the whole World, including the American people, is stuck??