Forget about the military threat from China, risks of war in the Taiwan Strait, Beijing’s purchase of US debt or its dislocating effect on jobs at home — all are manageable challenges that have been blown out of proportion by pundits and government officials.
So argues Stefan Halper in The Beijing Consensus, a timely little book that turns conventions on the “China threat” upside down and argues instead that the real challenge from Beijing — one that the Obama administration has so far unwisely neglected — lies in the transformative forces, operating at the global level, associated with China’s rise.
China is undoing the West, Halper writes, not by a calculated strategy that seeks such an outcome, but rather as a result of its authoritarian model and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) need to maintain a high level of economic growth at home to ensure its legitimacy and survival. In so doing, it has turned to every corner of the earth for natural resources and energy to meet its growing domestic requirements.
While there is nothing unusual, or even alarming, in this development, Beijing’s policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries means that it has no compunction in dealing with the world’s worst human rights offenders, as long as they have certain commodities to offer. As Halper rightly argues, the West — from big oil companies to George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism” White House — has its own checkered past from turning a blind eye to abuse when it is convenient to do so, but in recent years a certain consciousness has arisen that imposes limits on how Western firms and governments can and will engage serious human rights abusers.
One unforeseen consequence of China’s rise and Western conditionality is that rogue states, as well as a large swathe of the developing world, now have an alternative. While in the past states wishing to sell their natural resources or seeking financial assistance had no choice but to turn to the West or Western-dominated institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, they can now turn to Beijing. Given the choice between the painful economic restructuring and democratization imposed by Western institutions and Beijing’s no-questions-asked type of engagement, a growing number of states are “learning to combine market economics with traditional autocratic or semi-autocratic politics in a process that signals the intellectual rejection of the Western economic model.”
The implications for the ability of the West to influence development on its own terms and traditions are dire, Halper says, especially as trade between groups of developing countries such as Brazil, Russia, India and China, along with other emerging markets, now oftentimes surpasses trade with major Western economies. In other words, China’s substantial financial resources and willingness to trade and provide loans, added to the preference of a number of developing economies to adopt the semi-autocratic model espoused by Beijing and perfected by Singapore — stability through economic development, while the public stays out of politics — are creating large zones where the West’s appeal is quickly dropping. It is also weakening the ability of Western institutions, such as the UN or rights NGOs, to influence policy. In a number of cases, this translates into rising authoritarianism and human rights abuses.