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.
The author argues that the eight years of George W. Bush administration, with its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and rejection of international consensus, dealt a severe blow to US credibility in many circles, thus creating a moral vacuum that China quickly managed to fill by playing the equivalency card.
At the same time, Western sanctions against rogue regimes like Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Zimbabwe allowed China, which had no qualms about dealing with them, to step in and take advantage of their untapped resources.
Despite what alarmists want us to believe, this isn’t some grand Chinese design to undermine the West. It is, rather, the outcome of a domestic process that forces the CCP to seek access to natural resources and markets wherever it can find them. Beijing’s fear of instability is such that it cannot afford to be discerning in who it deals with. It is, ironically, locked in a cage of its own making.
This, in turn, has implications for the school of international politics that believes that by engaging Beijing economically and encouraging it to integrate into the global community, the West will be able to foster democratization in China. In Halper’s view, such beliefs are misguided and ultimately naive, because China plays by different rules that emphasize stability over liberalization, in which economic growth is divorced from political freedoms, as Premier Wen Jiabao’s (溫家寶) rejection of the Western democratic model in 2007 clearly showed. In that regard, Beijing learned the lessons of the Soviet collapse, which in its view resulted from Mikhail Gorbachev’s failure to rein in politics just as he was promoting economic liberalization, a mistake that the CCP will not repeat.
The Western model, whereby a growing and increasingly affluent middle class will eventually demand more political freedoms, meanwhile, also fails to apply to China, where the leadership has succeeded in co-opting that segment of society by making its economic welfare increasingly dependent on the central authority.
For the time being, Beijing appears to have beaten the West at its own game, using capitalist techniques perfected over the decades to ensure its ascent while slowly transforming a system that, not so long ago, pundits claimed represented the “end of history.” If the process of China’s inadvertent reconfiguration of the international order is to be stopped, a reassessment of how we engage Beijing — it is not either a competitor or a partner, friend or foe, but all these things simultaneously — is in order. Thankfully, the contradictions that compel Beijing to act the way it does, its need for constant domestic growth, its focus on stability, fear of confrontation and aversion to humiliation, offer some leverage by which to influence its policy choices. At the same time, Halper argues, the West must also give some serious thought to how it engages the developing world and, just as China did, adapt to the new realities.
Panda bashers and panda huggers alike will likely dislike this book, which for those in between offers a refreshing new way of looking at the “China threat.”
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