Our Losing Wager on China
e hope we can convey a positive message that China and the U.S. will stick to the principle of showing mutual support to people in the same boat and strengthen cooperation,” said Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping to his American counterpart, Joe Biden, during a phone conversation on the eve of his February get-to-know-you tour of the United States.
Xi, expected to become China’s next leader at the end of this year, undoubtedly used the boat analogy because he saw that Washington was reassessing the assumptions that have underpinned America’s relations with Beijing for the last forty years. The policies of today are the same as the ones President Nixon envisioned four decades ago, but only in broad outline. Chinese leaders, for good reason, are worried about recent American moves in their region.
When he made his groundbreaking trip to Beijing in 1972, Nixon knew that both China and the United States shared the same principal adversary, so he traveled halfway around the world to enlist Mao Zedong as an informal partner in the Cold War against the Soviets. The successful conclusion of that global struggle, which meant America no longer needed China, did not break the ties between two countries that then had little in common. And the horrible slaughter of Chinese citizens by their own government in their capital in June 1989 only interrupted close cooperation between Washington and Beijing; it did not end it.
Since Nixon’s visit to Beijing, the U.S. has sought to “engage” the Chinese and bring them into the liberal international system. This policy proved durable, despite tumultuous change over the course of decades, precisely because it was consistent with America’s conception of its global role. Chris Nelson of the daily Washington report bearing his name maintains that today’s China policies resemble those that produced the Marshall Plan because in both cases the United States was engineering, for the sake of the world, its own “altruistic decline.”
Whether the two policies can in fact be linked, America’s policy of engagement of China has been enlightened, farsighted, and generous. And it has had an effect. Beijing, after Mao’s death in 1976, reciprocated overtures from Washington and the West by dismantling the controls of a command economy, opening doors to foreign investment, and participating in international commerce.
This economic restructuring caused, or at least accompanied, a transformation of the country’s external policies. Beijing dropped its shrill and antagonistic talk about spreading Marxist revolution. In fact, the Chinese began to speak in pleasing tones as they opened their country to the world. “We are trying to make as many friends as possible,” said Li Zhaoxing, when he was foreign minister in 2004. “The more friends China has, the better.”1
And this was not just happy talk. Beijing did all it could to increase its friendships—and its clout. Once an outlander maintaining only one ambassador abroad, China is now close to the heart of world affairs, networked into almost every multilateral organization and virtually every other country. From its perches at the United Nations, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund, Beijing is considered an indispensable player on every continent. In fact, the Chinese have been so successful that the time we live in is considered to be their century. Consequently, Beijing’s diplomats see themselves as representatives of history’s next great power.
In a sense, this is the logical conclusion to America’s engagement. It was always more probable that this century, marked by accelerating globalization that is spreading wealth around the planet, would be named after the country with more than 19 percent of world population—China—than one with less than five—the U.S. The hope of the engagers was that enmeshment of China into global institutions would lead, if not to a democratic nation, then at least to a benign one. So there was a bet that China would become a true partner rather than another Soviet Union. It was the grandest wager of our time, if not of all time.This is a preview only. To read the full article click on the links below to purchase this issue or subscribe:
Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China, and a columnist at Forbes.com. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.