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China’s Losing Bet Against History

In 1991, Deng Xiaoping famously explained that in order to reassure the world of its peaceful intentions, China should “cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” Since then, China’s reassurance strategy has evolved as its economic clout and military capabilities have become impossible to mask, and its participation in global governance has become unavoidable. Rather than maintaining a low profile, China has gone on the offensive to combat perceptions that its growing strength constitutes a threat, initially vowing a “peaceful rise,” and more recently, reiterating its commitment to “peaceful development.” China has also engaged in confidence-building dialogues with its neighbors and the United States, both at the official and Track Two levels. Although China’s reassurance strategy has changed, the nature of its gamble has not. The Chinese government has consistently wagered that alleviating mistrust abroad will not require political reform at home.

Mike Clarke—AFP/Getty Images
A sculpture of Deng Xiaoping marking the 100-year anniversary of the leader’s birth, Hong Kong, 2004.

For China’s leadership, this bet against history has always held considerable appeal. It leaves unchallenged the consensus against political liberalization that emerged after the Tiananmen Square protests and the collapse of the world’s first communist state, the Soviet Union. It also permits the Chinese government to believe that political reform can be postponed indefinitely without incurring international blowback. Above all, it keeps open the option that Beijing might use its growing economic power to dilute aspects of the rules-based international order that have threatened to change China’s own domestic political institutions.

But China’s bet is unraveling. Despite a concerted effort to put a friendly face on its rise, China has failed to quell growing doubts about its future course. These doubts exist not only in the United States and Japan; concerns about Chinese intentions have surged across much of Asia as well. In 2009, the Center for Strategic and International Studies published an opinion survey of strategic elites in the Asia-Pacific region. When asked what nation would constitute the greatest threat to regional peace and security in ten years’ time, respondents from Australia, India, Indonesia, and South Korea in addition to Japan all listed China as the most likely country. In the wake of Beijing’s more recent assertiveness toward Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines, public attitudes toward China have deteriorated further, and identification of China as a potential threat has increased again.

The mistrust of China that overhangs Washington and many Asian capitals stems from the nature of China’s domestic institutions, not simply from its behavior on the world stage. China’s system of one-party rule has magnified anxieties that, in the best of circumstances, would attend the emergence of a new superpower. There is no small irony in China’s situation today. Its leadership has demonstrated an admirable determination to learn from the mistakes of past rising powers, going so far as to sanction a television miniseries tracing the ascent of nine states. And yet, Beijing has overlooked the way in which regime type frames power transitions. History suggests that autocracies cannot rise and indefinitely reassure. Betting against history is like betting against the house; history usually wins.

China’s lack of domestic political reform is now becoming a strategic liability. No matter how many times a rising China reiterates its commitment to “peaceful development,” no matter how many confidence-building dialogues a rising China participates in or free trade agreements it signs, the anxieties generated by its authoritarian system will remain. Rightly or wrongly, China will be mistrusted and even feared. Wary of China’s growing power, the United States, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, and others will behave in ways that harm China’s interests. Although China will not face a unified alliance as the Soviet Union did during the Cold War, it will confront an international landscape that is increasingly unwelcoming.

China’s flawed bet against history will result in more than quasi encirclement—over the long term, a system of one-party rule will prevent China from realizing a level of political and economic influence commensurate with its objective strength. Widespread mistrust of China’s ambitions will constrict its ability to take a leadership role in the international community. The opacity of basic economic decisions such as the setting of interest rates and currency values will limit China’s ability to become the linchpin of the global financial order. In this sense, an authoritarian system will ultimately deprive China of the fruits of its rise. The next generation of leaders in Beijing would do well to consider this problem as they chart their nation’s future course.

Political Liberalization as Strategy

If the United States is to forestall a repeat of historic rivalries with rising authoritarian states, it will be critical to develop a strategy to encourage gradual political liberalization within China.

To start, Americans have to understand the limits of integration and hedging as tools of foreign policy. Until today, the United States and China have kept tensions in check and avoided falling into an enduring rivalry. This was possible because China, though rising and autocratic, was still weak. But as China’s strength mounts, the uncertainty surrounding its ascendance compels the United States to place greater emphasis on hedging. The delicate balance between integration and hedging, which has permitted the United States and China to cooperate while managing mistrust, is at risk of breaking down. What will replace it is unmitigated competition.

Beyond integration and hedging, a third strategy toward China is necessary—a strategy that has no real historical parallel but nonetheless holds the potential to short-circuit the cycle of mistrust, reaction, and counterreaction that all too often causes an autocracy’s rise to culminate in acute rivalry if not military conflict. This strategy would focus on political reform within China as an indispensable dimension of building better U.S.-China relations.

America’s third strategy toward China will require presidential ownership to be effective. To give some concrete examples, the president of the United States should regularly meet with the Dalai Lama and accord sufficient access and attention to legitimate Chinese dissidents. It will be essential that the leadership in Beijing consistently hears from the president and his or her senior foreign policy team about the importance to the United States of specific issues of democratic governance in China. Values discourse with China should not be relegated to the “human rights” dialogue by the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor. It is not enough to simply find “dialogues” that check the box for American human rights advocacy groups.

Presidential ownership of this strategy will help to ensure that it does not devolve into a self-defeating crusade against China. The leadership in Beijing will always be suspicious of American strategies for “peaceful evolution” in China, but they will engage more productively if it is clear that the American president is not interested in weakening China’s economic development. Whoever sits in the Oval Office should explain to his or her Chinese counterpart that improvement in governance, rule of law, religious freedom, and civil society would all help China to become stronger—not weaker. Consistent presidential attention to necessary changes within China will also help to prevent sudden explosions in the relationship. Vacillating between deference and overassertion on human rights and democracy will do more damage to American ties with China than an unwavering position that contains no surprises for Beijing.

The United States should support efforts that help Chinese officials strengthen their own institutions. Today, for example, Georgetown University engages in a dialogue with the Central Party School—the higher education institution responsible for training China’s political elite—on religious freedom; the Supreme Court works with Chinese jurists on questions of jurisprudence; nongovernmental organizations like the Asia Foundation seek partnerships with local Chinese organizations and universities seeking to be more effective in meeting citizens’ needs. These efforts at institution building take place within the parameters of China’s own constitution. The results will be gradual, but the resources should be increased. Meanwhile, there is no contradiction between encouraging this slower insider strategy of reform in China and more direct efforts by organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy or Freedom House to spotlight human rights and democracy failures that may be more embarrassing for Beijing. The U.S. government should support both.

It is critical to realize that despite the sometimes tone-deaf nature of Chinese foreign policy toward Asia, Chinese leaders are not impervious to the opinions of their neighbors. As Asia’s web of formal institutions and informal networks continues to evolve and strengthen, the United States should actively promote an agenda that moves the region away from the idea of “non-interference in internal affairs” and toward respect for individual rights within member states. The momentum regionally is with the United States on this question, but there is no single view of what constitutes universal norms. Washington will therefore have to pursue a differentiated approach toward advancing democratic norms in Asia, one that reflects the diversity of the region and its international institutions. That may mean partnering with advanced economies like Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the European Union on a caucus to advance transparent development assistance and good governance in the region, while working with Indonesia to encourage ASEAN to strengthen the human rights commission in its charter. The United States will also want to increase coordination with other likeminded states so that Beijing hears as unified a message as possible on domestic Chinese practices that deny human rights or obstruct the development of transparent and accountable institutions.

And last, despite the limited nature of confidence-building measures that fall short of political liberalization, the United States should increase regional and international pressure on Beijing to reduce the opaqueness around its foreign and national security decision-making processes. The PLA will resist, since that same opaqueness is seen by the military leadership in China as a strategic asset. So the answer will be to hold civilian leaders responsible for the actions of the PLA. There is no doubt that the Central Military Commission of the Communist Party exerts control over the PLA from the top, but there are few checks and balances or sources of information or operational guidance below that. Setting expectations that China’s civilian leaders will be pressed by their Japanese, South Korean, Indian, Vietnamese, and other counterparts on PLA activities will condition the civilian leadership in Beijing to do their homework and establish and strengthen their own independent levers to adjust PLA operations, rhetoric, and planning so that these do not undermine larger Chinese foreign policy interests.

While embracing a third strategy of political liberalization, the United States needs to recognize that pressing for rapid democratization would actually make a U.S.-China rivalry more likely. The leadership in Beijing would regard a push for overnight elections as a deeply hostile act. The target should be rule of law, good governance, and greater accountability—political reforms that do not inherently threaten the Communist Party, and may even help to boost its flagging legitimacy. Ultimately, the United States cannot democratize China. But what it can do is shape the environment in which Beijing’s leadership debates political liberalization. Without this third strategy in place, there is a strong likelihood that integration and hedging will fail to avert enduring competition.