Of the myriad foreign policy issues facing the United States today, none has such long-term global consequences as our relationship with China. Yet the popular Western understanding of Chinese history, culture, and politics remains heavily based on outdated stereotypes. A deeper appreciation of the Chinese situation can help us lay policy foundations that will weather the inevitable conflicts to come as China seeks its way in the world.
Centralization, Chaos, and Confucianism: A Historical Perspective
China’s 4,500-year-old Confucian social order is often mistaken for an equally long and stable political tradition; nothing could be further from the truth. The political history of China is a repeating cycle of bloody unification, followed by the slow corruption and decline of central authority, and, finally, a collapse into anarchic regionalism until unification occurs again. Since 220 b.c. there have been at least 10 major dynastic changes, each entailing civil war and massive human suffering. For nearly 700 of the intervening 2,200 years, China has been a tumultuous and fragmented land ruled by regional warlords rather than a central authority.
The period from 1849 to 1949 is viewed by the Chinese as the “century of shame,” when Western powers and then the Japanese imposed colonial domination. Although it was certainly a dark period for China, it must be viewed in its full political context to be properly understood. It is unlikely that any power could have dominated a strong and effectively governed Middle Kingdom, but the ruling Qing dynasty was already in an advanced state of decay when the first Europeans arrived. At least five major domestic insurrections occurred in tandem with foreign encroachments. By the time of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, the Western powers had negotiated separate peace agreements with provincial leaders because there was no effective central authority. Foreign domination was more a result of internal collapse than the reason for it—a lesson that has not been lost on China’s current rulers.
The Chinese Communist Party leadership uses century-of-shame rhetoric to bolster nationalism and, no doubt, sincerely believes that the events of that period reveal much about the nature and intentions of Western nations. It would be naive and dangerous, however, to think that the party leadership does not understand the bigger picture—and the pivotal role that domestic weakness and fragmentation have frequently played. Thus the true causes of the century of shame undoubtedly confirm the leadership’s Confucian tendency toward strong central rule and national cohesion at any price.
The influence of Confucianism, and its contrasts with Western thought, cannot be overemphasized in understanding Chinese policy calculations. Unlike the West, where titanic clashes of religious, moral, and political philosophy over 2,000 years shaped a diverse culture of individuality, the teaching of Confucius in China—supreme and largely unchallenged—has ordered its society.
The fundamental Confucian political unit is society itself. Thus social stability is perceived as the greatest public good and the ultimate human right, and its protection is seen as the highest duty of government. The family, with its rigid seniority relationships and role responsibilities, is the organizational model for all levels of social and political structure. Although moderation is revered and compromise solutions are preferred, all available measures are employed to maintain order and to save individual and organizational face.
China is not now, nor has it ever been, truly communist on the Soviet model. If the thin red veneer is scratched, one sees that the ancient Confucian system of imperial times is almost unchanged, except in terminology.
Mao and Adam Smith: China Today
Modern China is most often portrayed as an economic, political, and military juggernaut meteorically rising to dominate East Asian power dynamics; however, this situation, if carefully examined, is much more complex and tenuous than that.
China’s economy has certainly experienced rapid growth, but its lack of transparency makes the quality and sustainability of that growth dubious. Abundant anecdotal evidence suggests that many sectors are still badly distorted by central planning, and others—including vital components such as finance and regulation—are handicapped by corruption. China needs to move hundreds of millions of rural citizens into its cities to reach the point of urbanization at which Japan and South Korea succeeded in transitioning to high-value-added economies, and China’s education system requires immense improvements. Environmental damage has reached such staggering levels that even the leadership in Beijing is questioning China’s manufacturing model.
The multifaceted social upheaval caused by China’s rapid economic changes, if not deftly managed, could once again plunge China into domestic chaos. The central government is plagued by the unintended consequences of reforms that have left untold millions without medical, education, or pension benefits. A wide and increasing gap in wealth distribution is adding to the discontent. Recent media stories of unrest in the countryside are almost certainly the tip of the iceberg; another effect of the Confucian preference for stability is that social pressures tend to build silently until reaching a breaking point.
This leaves China between a rock and a hard place. China’s continued military modernization, its largesse-based regional diplomacy, and its long-term social stability all hinge on economic success, yet its economic reforms threaten to precipitate a domestic meltdown. The policy line between “too much / too fast” and “too little / too slow” is razor thin. As a Chinese military officer said to me during a visit, “we’ve re-created the conditions that led to the revolution.”
The New Silk Road: U.S.-China Relations
Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick’s recent comment declaring a U.S. policy of strategic cooperation with China is a positive step that should be quickly and decisively built on. Friction between the United States and China is inevitable, as between even the strongest of allies, but China—unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War—is not an expansive, proselytizing power that views its existence and success as mutually exclusive to that of the United States. Our joint national interests are not irreconcilable or zero sum. We are not heading inevitably toward a military clash, but three critical issues must be resolved to ensure regional peace and the long-term prosperity of all concerned parties.
First, and most immediately pressing, is Taiwan. Much has been written questioning the legitimacy of the mainland’s claim to the island; from a policy perspective that is irrelevant. The PRC leadership has staked its political capital on the issue of reunification, and it cannot back down without an unacceptable loss of face and probable revolt by hard-liners within the military. Thus, a limited conflict confined to the Taiwan Strait is likely impossible; once the fighting starts, regime change in Beijing may well be required to end it. Fortunately, both the PRC and Taiwan have declared that a solution based on long-term negotiations would be acceptable (50- and 100-year time periods have been mentioned as reasonable).
The greatest short-term risk is a conflict sparked by a miscalculation on either side; the long-standing U.S. position of strategic ambiguity regarding Taiwan’s defense exacerbates this danger. To mitigate this risk, we should publicly declare the policy that the island’s final status—be it independence, reunification, or a semi-autonomous provincial agreement—must be resolved through negotiation and that the United States will directly intervene to defend Taiwan if an unprovoked resolution by force is attempted. To that end, U.S. naval and air forces in the Marianas Islands should be rapidly increased to ensure that we have the credible ability to respond in a timely manner without the political encumbrances inherent in our force-basing agreements with Japan and South Korea (where the preponderance of our regional forces now reside).
The second issue is how to best pursue the moral imperative of encouraging domestic governance and human rights reform within China while not forcing the regime into an untenable position that risks domestic collapse. An appreciation of Confucian sensibilities and the immense social and structural inertia that must be overcome to effect change in China is critical. The PRC’s rulers are more sensitive to domestic pressures and the threat of internal unrest than they publicly acknowledge. Thus outside pressure to effect rapid and possibly destabilizing change will be perceived as a threat to the regime. To the greatest extent possible, pressure for change should be exerted behind closed doors to preserve face; on those occasions when this must be done publicly, specific issues (such as Internet restrictions, protection of intellectual property rights, or the persecution of identified groups) should be the focus rather than such sweeping values as “fostering democracy.”
Third, and perhaps most vexing, is the issue of China-Japan relations. China, viewing itself as the region’s traditional hegemon, will expect increasing Confucian deference from Asian “juniors” as its power increases. Japan is unlikely to acquiesce. Add the long-standing animosity remaining from the Sino-Japanese wars of the last two centuries to many still-unresolved issues of geography, and the incentive toward nationalism for both governments is great. To avert an arms race and, potentially, a devastating conflict that would inevitably draw the United States in, we must find a way to final and peaceful resolution of the critical China-Japan friction points.
Because the strongest economic and security ties in East Asia are currently those that run individually between the United States and each of the major regional powers, the policies of the United States in dealing with China and shaping the diplomatic landscape of Asia are critical. One measure that could help resolve all three issues discussed above is the establishment of a permanent regional security and trade forum wherein China, Japan, Korea, the United States, and others could be represented at both the national and the provincial levels. This need not be seen as a tremendous departure or concession by any participant; California and other large U.S. states as well as several Japanese provinces already send trade delegations to China and Taiwan, and the line between security and economic issues is becoming increasingly blurred. Such a forum would allow China and Taiwan a means of official direct contact without a de facto acknowledgment of “state” status for Taiwan and would provide a standing medium for China-Japan negotiations, with the United States acting as an interlocutor but not being forced into the role of intermediary.
The road will be long, occasionally rough, and frequently frustrating. Patience—not a virtue for which the United States is famous—will be paramount. But we must get this right, and we must remain encouraged “that two steps forward, one step back” ultimately indicates progress in the right direction.