China's Peaceful Rise?
WASHINGTON -- What ever happened to China’s “peaceful rise”? It is certainly true that the emergence of other great powers in history was not peaceful. But China promised to be different. According to its leaders and many foreign experts, China’s internal development would hinge on its support for a stable world order underpinned by the global public goods provided by the United States and its allies. Its economic engine and “smile diplomacy” would serve as a magnet for its neighbors. Its membership in regional and international institutions would socialize Beijing to be a good neighbor and “status quo superpower.”
Trade and engagement with the wider world would mellow the heavy hand of Chinese authoritarianism and, over time, produce a more representative, accountable political system. Beijing’s alarming response to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, one of its most distinguished civic activists, and an Asia-Pacific defense ministers’ meeting this week focused on countering China’s maritime assertiveness are reminders that these aspirations are yet to be realized. In the economic realm, too, China’s mercantilist trade policy risks hollowing out the developed economies that are the primary markets for Chinese products. And Beijing’s use of its economic power as a weapon – as demonstrated by the continuing de facto ban on rare-earth-mineral exports to Japan following a skirmish over disputed islands in the East China Sea – has shocked a global business elite whose enthusiasm for the China market was based on the premise that the business of China was business. Western governments have struggled to construct China policies that at the same time encourage China to behave as a responsible power while deterring behavior detrimental to international stability, security, and prosperity. Both the Clinton and Obama administrations toyed with the idea of making China America’s privileged partner in Asia, with effects harmful to U.S. relations with key allies and to the U.S.-China relationship itself. The Bush administration first identified China as a “strategic competitor” before moving to a policy of great-power entente with China as U.S. energies centered on the war on terrorism and the construction of a new partnership with India.
In Europe, concessions to Chinese sensitivities on Tibet and human rights issues – often at the expense of the universal values that grew out of Europe’s Enlightenment tradition – seem to have earned more Chinese scorn than gratitude. This has been compounded by Europe’s inability to speak with one voice on China, uncertainty about Europe’s own future as a global actor, and the underdevelopment of European states’ relations with other key Asian powers as part of a wider strategy toward the world’s emerging center of power and prosperity. The continuing search by the developed democracies for the right strategy to advance their interests in China is understandable. While China’s development trajectory resembles that of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, its scale is of a different order. This is also true of the global impact of its rise as a great power. Given its scale and import, it is perhaps the ascendance of the United States in the 20th century that most closely parallels China’s emergence today as a global power. Yet the differences between the American and Chinese models are instructive. The United States was what Thomas Jefferson had called an “empire of liberty,” where human freedom and economic growth flourished under a framework of law and political accountability. America developed a global coalition of allies over the first half of the 20th century and has been enlarging it ever since. With these allies, it provided global public goods that created an architecture of order around principles of international law, open commerce, international institutions, and liberal governance. Leading states found it more beneficial to align with America rather than balance against it; a countercoalition to contain U.S. power never formed after the Cold War, due in part to the transparency of U.S. politics and American strategies to reassure rather than threaten other great powers.
The contrast with China on all these fronts is stark. China has different traditions and will follow its own path. But its government’s unwillingness to tolerate even a modicum of political dissent, as demonstrated by its shrill rejection of the Nobel Committee’s decision to honor Liu Xiaobo for advocating the basic rights of all Chinese people; its manifest lack of external allies, beyond wards like North Korea and Burma; its inability or unwillingness to provide global public goods, for instance by unilaterally asserting Chinese ownership of the South China Sea; its shift from emphasizing the universal benefits of China’s contribution to a “harmonious world” to a narrow, unilateral definition of “core interests” that threaten its neighbors; and the creation through China’s own actions of an emerging coalition of states that seek to deter or restrain its growing power – these and other policies do not bode well for any kind of “Chinese century,” real or imagined.
Daniel Twining is Senior Fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.