For 50 years, the cold war provided the US with a moral purpose. Now American conservatives are looking for a new enemy. Owen Harries argues that they are wrong to pick on China. Although increasingly a competitor, China is not an enemyby Owen Harries / July 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in July 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
Since the end of the cold war, many Americans have been suffering from an enemy-deprivation syndrome. This is not surprising. After all, for 50 years they had experienced a clearly identified, formidable, and agreed upon enemy. That enemy provided a simple organising principle for foreign policy, and imbued it with a sense of heroic moral purpose.
As soon as the initial euphoria over the Soviet Union’s collapse had passed, most of the US foreign policy cognoscenti-and especially a large section of its conservative component-began to search for a substitute enemy. For a short while Japan was favoured. Scores of books and articles were written about the impending “clash” between it and the US. But then a Japan that had been presented as an irresistible juggernaut suddenly faltered. Its economy lost momentum, its politics became a shambles; it was no longer a credible enemy.
Temporarily at a loss, some tried to fill the gap by a process of aggregation. If a single enemy was not available, then perhaps several small ones added together might do-North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Serbia. But it soon became clear that a lizard, a hyena and a couple of skunks did not add up to a dragon. Nor did Islamic fundamentalism really work: its multiple, divided agents lacked the heft and presence to be convincing rivals.
At this point some turned back to Russia as a dependable candidate for the role of principal enemy. True, its economy was in a pitiful state, its military performance in Chechnya was abysmal and its social fabric was in tatters; but it certainly resonated, and if one was prepared to take the long view it still had adversarial potential. That, at least, seemed to be the view of those who took up the cause of the eastward expansion of Nato with enthusiasm. As Peter Rodman put it: “The only potential great power security problem in central Europe is the lengthening shadow of Russian strength… Russia is a force of nature.”
But although Russia needs careful handling, a declining former superpower making a serious stab at becoming a democracy is not really well suited to play the role of a principal enemy. Certainly it does not capture a combative imagination with the same conviction as a coming superpower that is performing spectacularly economically, that is still governed by an obnoxious regime, that frequently says nasty things about the US, and that encompasses over one fifth of the earth’s population-which is to say, China.
It is not surprising, then, that there is now widespread support for the view that China is America’s main enemy, that the two countries are on a collision course and that the only sensible policy for the US to follow is a hostile one. In the words of the New Republic, we “must engage China adversarially.” Anything else will amount to appeasement.
Things may indeed turn out that way. Perhaps China really is evil, hostile and aggressive. But there is another possibility: that asserting these things will be self-fulfilling. If you insist on treating another country as an enemy, it is likely to become one. All the more reason, then, to look carefully at the arguments advanced for treating China in this way.
The first argument: China as aspiring global hegemon. “Most experts agree,” the Weekly Standard tells us, “that China aims in the long term to challenge America’s position as the dominant power in the world.”
China’s supposed appetite for global power is based on no empirical evidence whatsoever. China has been singularly unambitious beyond its region. Its most conspicuous venture was a half-hearted and incompetent effort to establish a presence in Africa more than three decades ago. True, in recent years China has sold arms to a number of countries outside the region, but if that is to be taken as evidence of hegemonic ambitions, then a number of western powers-even Israel and Sweden-would qualify.
The global hegemony claim is based not on empirical evidence but on a “logic of the system” argument, which maintains that rivalry is inevitable between the dominant power and the next strongest state, especially if the latter is an ascendant power. Sometimes this claim is bolstered by reference to the Anglo-German rivalry at the beginning of this century, when Britain as the dominant power was challenged by the German arriviste.
True, a certain amount of friction between a hegemon in being and a rapidly rising state is virtually inevitable. Indeed, a certain amount of friction between any two powerful states that have regular intercourse is inevitable. But that by no means implies an unavoidable and continuing adversarial relationship. At the time of the Anglo-German rivalry there existed another-and, in the long run, more formidable-challenger to British supremacy, namely the US. Yet Britain and the US did not become deadly enemies; on the contrary, they got on rather well and ultimately became allies. That relationship alone refutes the “inevitable” argument-and serves as a reminder that the Anglo-German rivalry required an exceptionally vain and foolish Kaiser Wilhelm in order to flourish.
The second argument: China as aspiring regional hegemon. The charge that China is set on becoming a regional hegemon is based on empirical evidence: on an alleged pattern of assertive, intimidatory and acquisitive behaviour, particularly towards Taiwan, Japan and certain islands in the South China Sea.
To the extent that China is assertive in its region, there is nothing peculiar in its behaviour. This is the way ascending powers-democratic or authoritarian-normally behave. If their efforts become egregious, they have to be checked; if they are reasonably modest, it is wise to cut them some slack.
By historical standards, China’s recent assertiveness is modest. Taiwan apart, it has mainly manifested itself with respect to uninhabited or sparsely inhabited islands whose ownership is in dispute: the Senkaku Islands (claimed by China, Japan and Taiwan), the Paracel Islands (claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan) and Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands (claimed by China, the Philippines and Taiwan).
Even if Chinese restraint does not necessarily reflect modest ambition, it does represent a rational sense of the power realities that will continue to exist well into the next century. We are, after all, talking about a country that, as Robert Ross pointed out in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs, does not possess a single aircraft carrier, and will not possess one for a decade. The South China Sea is strategically important, and should the Chinese attempt to dominate it, they would have to be reminded of their limited capacity to project power. In the meantime, vigilance rather than enmity is required.
Taiwan is a special case. Handling the issue has involved an implicit bargain: Beijing will leave the island alone to enjoy de facto autonomy as long as Washington and Taipei do not force the issue of its ultimate status. When China mounted a show of force against Taiwan in March 1996, it was not in an effort to upset the balance represented by that bargain but as a reaction to its having been already upset by Taipei and Washington-by President Lee’s campaign to have Taiwan readmitted to the UN (which would have been tantamount to recognising its independence), by the Clinton administration’s allowing Lee to visit the US and so burnish Taiwan’s independent image, and by a $6 billion sale of F-16 fighter planes to Taiwan. Ill-judged, ugly, and dangerous as was the Chinese intimidation, it was a reaction. It was not evidence of a determination to change the status quo. While the US has a political, moral and economic interest in safeguarding the de facto autonomy of Taiwan, there is ground for thinking long and hard before assuming any obligation to support its formal independence.
One further point about Taiwan: while Americans tend to think of the issue primarily as a political question involving legal status and freedom from outside interference-and it is certainly that-for the Chinese it is also a strategic issue. As Ross reminds us, the island is the equivalent of an “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” only 90 miles or so off China’s coast. To the extent that Americans are sensitive about Castro’s Cuba, they should be able to appreciate China’s apprehension about Taiwan.
The third argument: the Chinese arms build-up. Much is made of what the New Republic calls China’s “programme of massive militarisation.” The Weekly Standard emphasises that “China is the only major world power increasing rather than decreasing its defense spending.”
China certainly has increased its defence budget, although how much of that increase reflects inflation and the need to keep the military content through increased pay is in dispute among specialists. Certainly, too, there have been serious and successful efforts to acquire modern weaponry from Russia and Europe: SU-27 fighter aircraft, quiet submarines, destroyers equipped with cruise missiles, and so on.
That said, these points are relevant: first, the increases have been made to a defence budget that had been severely depressed by the prolonged economic calamity of the cultural revolution. Second, the modernisation was to replace an arsenal that was antiquated. Just how far behind the Chinese were became evident to them through America’s swift victory in the Gulf war. Third, the build-up also reflects the unusual conjunction of the availability of greatly increased funds on the Chinese side and the ready availability of modern weapons for sale on the Russian side. Fourth, however “massive” the Chinese programme is, the US defence budget is still as large as the next five or six largest defence budgets in the world combined. Fifth, given the backwardness of Chinese technology and the limitation of what can be purchased abroad, it will take a long time for China to acquire a defence force that is fully modernised.
The fourth argument: China as human rights violator. One justification for hostility towards China, and perhaps the one with the greatest popular appeal, is that its regime is oppressive and shows little respect for human rights. How concern for human rights translates into foreign policy is a complicated matter. While individuals or single-issue organisations are free to take an absolute position on the question, governments are not. Governments have to balance the claims of human rights against other concerns which also have a moral content (peace, security, order, prosperity). To the moral absolutist the result will seem cynical, and governments regularly invite such a response because they persist in speaking of human rights in absolutist terms that they cannot, in the nature of things, honour.
True, there will be some occasions when the violation of human rights will be so horrendous that the absolutist moral approach becomes-or should become-compelling. Such was the case with the regimes of Hitler and Stalin. But mercifully they are the exceptions, not the rule. The best estimate of the number of political prisoners in China currently is 3,000 out of a population of 1.3 billion-hardly the equivalent of the Gulag or the Nazi concentration camps. Ironically, back in the early 1970s, when most Americans, liberals and realists alike, were applauding the US opening to China, the Maoist regime was in the same league as the Hitlerite and Stalinist regimes.
China today can more reasonably be compared to Indonesia or Saudi Arabia-or India. Of the latter, a recent Council on Foreign Relations report states: “Thousands of Kashmiris have been killed by the security forces. On occasion Indian units have used lethal force against peaceful demonstrators and burned down entire neighbourhoods.” But far from suggesting that the US should penalise India, the report recommends that we develop a “closer strategic relationship” with that country. While one would not want to make a similar proposal in the case of China, it would seem sensible to stop short of ostracism.
One last point: while China’s human rights performance continues to be poor, in important respects the trend is positive. There have been significant improvements in terms of the rule of law, grass-roots democracy and media freedom. Already it is absurd to apply the term “totalitarian” to the regime, as the New Republic does. While there is no established direct causal relationship between economic advance and political liberalisation, there is certainly a strong correlation between the two. There are thus real grounds for hoping that freedom and respect for human rights in China will increase steadily-perhaps dramatically-over the next decade.
The fifth argument: the hostility of China’s political elite. Richard Bernstein and Ross H Munro in their book The Coming Conflict with China place a great deal of emphasis on the character of the Chinese ruling elite in explaining the hostility that exists between China and the US. That elite has become strongly anti-American. It shows a pattern of “irritability, defensiveness, harshness and defiance of American opinion.” It uses words such as “hegemonism,” “subversion” and “interference” about the US. This elderly elite is characterised as secretive, intolerant, reflexively defensive and chauvinistic.
During the second half of the cold war, this anti-Americanism was held in check by the need for American support against a threatening Russia. But now, with that threat removed and with China’s power rapidly increasing, the elite feels no need to keep its true feelings secret. Indeed, they can be turned to advantage. For with communism dead, there is need for a substitute ideology to legitimise the power of the elite. What better substitute than the true and tried formula of emotional, chauvinistic nationalism, directed against an alien superpower?
This analysis may well contain significant elements of truth. But with a closed and secretive elite it is difficult to be certain what those elements are. We knew, or thought we knew, much more about the Soviet elite (all those years of dedicated Kremlinology!) than we know about the Chinese elite-and yet almost all of us were utterly surprised by its supine behaviour in the final crisis of the Soviet system. That experience alone should counsel caution in basing policy on one’s supposed understanding of the psychology of a closed and secretive elite.
Moreover, the charges that the Chinese elite directs against the US are in many respects similar to the charges that Bernstein and Munro (and others) make against the Chinese. Each accuses the other of hegemonistic designs, threatening behaviour, military build-up and the like. This raises the question of what is cause and what is effect. Americans quote Chinese statements to establish that the US must reconcile itself to the enmity of Beijing; but it is very likely that analysts in China are simultaneously quoting Bernstein and Munro to establish that American enmity must be taken as a given. Is there not the real danger of a vicious circle here?
The sixth argument: China’s interference in American domestic politics. The inclination to treat China as an enemy has been significantly strengthened by the current charges of Chinese government interference in America’s domestic political process. These charges are true. That said, however, outrage should be tempered by the recognition that if such interference justifies condemnation, then many countries have grounds for condemning the US. For over 50 years the US has itself interfered in the domestic affairs of other countries on a regular basis-not only third world countries and not only dictatorships, but developed western countries, including democracies. The Christian Democratic party of Italy, for example, was massively supported by the CIA in its early days, and there has been much intervention in the domestic affairs of countries as varied as Greece, Chile and the Philippines.
I am aware that pointing this out is likely to draw the charge that one is assuming a “moral equivalence.” But this is a charge that has to be resorted to with great care. If the US is always treated as a special case because its superior ends justify means that would otherwise be unacceptable, it becomes difficult to discuss issues sensibly. What may have been appropriate in the circumstances of coping with the “evil empire” of yesterday is not appropriate in the more mundane world of today.
In their article “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy” (Foreign Affairs, July/August 1996), William Kristol and Robert Kagan maintained that “it is hard to imagine conservatives achieving a lasting political realignment in this country without… a coherent set of foreign policy principles that at least bear some resemblance to those proposed by Reagan. The remoralisation of America at home ultimately requires the remoralisation of US foreign policy.” Again, they argue that “Deprived of the support of an elevated patriotism, bereft of the ability to appeal to national honour, conservatives will ultimately fail in their effort to govern America.”
This represents an interesting approach to foreign policy, one that seems to start with the political needs of conservatives rather than the national interest of the US. This was not Ronald Reagan’s approach to foreign policy. More to the point, the kind of priority represented by Kristol and Kagan-the need to find a cause that will “remoralise” America-is almost certain to produce an enemy and identify an inspiring conflict between good and evil. As Walter Lippmann once observed, “For the most part we do not first see and then define, we define first and then we see.” It is difficult to escape the conclusion that something of this sort typifies much current US thinking about China.