China and America: the uses of vulnerability

Chinese politics exist on an economic cliff-edge. This makes the outcome of a contest within the country’s elite decisive, not least for the future relationship with the United States, says Kerry Brown.

A number of events in April-June 2010 has seemed to suggest that relations between the United States and China are back on track after a difficult period. They include Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington in May for the opening of the international review-conference on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), the suspension of arguments about the need to revalue the Chinese currency, and discussions on the latest crisis over North Korea.

The world’s two most important powers have, it seems, moved beyond a period of difficult, sometimes fraught exchanges. There is still potential for disputes, such as over Taiwan or climate change, but overall the picture is one of a return to business as normal (see Daniel W Drezner, “China and America, sitting in a tree?”, Foreign Policy, 2 April 2010).

However, the few months’ edginess from late 2009 was significant, and examining it may reveal something of the tension that often underlies the vital relationship between the People’s Republic of China and the United States.

It is not too much to say that for four decades the overriding priority of Chinese foreign policy has been to stick close to Washington. In the dark days of the cultural revolution of the late 1960s, Mao Zedong instructed some old comrades to advise him on how to reconnect with the US. Within three years, Richard Nixon had made his historic visit, and the relationship was set on the path it has followed ever since. Deng Xiaoping consolidated it further by crafting a whole policy around getting benefits, including investment, from increased links with the world’s most powerful economy. This was condensed into an edict: “keep a low profile, build up our capacity and be cooperative”. It could be argued from the perspective of 2010 that it is the most successful piece of foreign-policy wisdom in history. 

The strength of the relationship at elite level was seen after June 1989, when President George HW Bush helped China rejoin the international community quicker than many expected as it faced relative isolation in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre. From its side, Beijing refused to allow periodic clashes - over Taiwan, joining the World Trade Organisation, or US interventions in Yugoslavia (where the Chinese embassy was bombed) or Iraq - to deflect it from Mao’s strategy of sticking close.

Two ways of seeing

Beijing has its foreign-policy disputes and factions, however, even if they are not always as public as Washington’s. And in the background of the arguments between the two capitals, a deeper internal battle over China’s foreign-policy soul can sometimes be glimpsed. The useful if familiar distinction between hawks and doves is one entry-point that can help make sense of it.

The hawks (who are also often both nationalists and leftists) believe that it is no longer necessary to stay faithful to Deng Xiaoping’s edict. They see a US that is in decline, yet continuing to pursue  brutally self-interested behaviour: the attempt to bind China into climate-change commitments that will restrict its economic growth, and to entice the country into expensive military programmes that will squander its hard-worn reserves and lead it along the same path to oblivion as the Soviet Union.

The conclusion is that China must now prepare to live in a world where battles - over energy resources, Taiwan, and China’s territorial integrity - will soon make sticking close to the US redundant and self-defeating. The argument here is reflected in the calls made at the national people’s congress (NPC) in March 2010 that China needs to have aircraft-carriers, and to move from being a land power to becoming a naval one.

The doves see a China where the country’s $2.6 trillion reserves co-exist with a per capita GDP that ranks 115 in the world (behind, for example, Namibia); and note that China’s water resources are 50% more polluted than had been reported even a year before. They highlight the fact that 12 million petitions are delivered each year to the central government, evidence both of a society in ferment and a state that has failed to build a credible legal order. To take on the US now would be catastrophic; indeed, the day of encounter recedes into the distance. In this view, the most China realistically can hope to be is a perpetual number-two.

The hawkish-nationalist case has a strong appeal to the Chinese public’s heartstrings, not least in its appeal to a sense of historic grievance. Wang Xiaodong, a vehement exponent of this view, talks of China at last fulfilling its aspiration to proper hard power, and jettisoning the soft-power strategy pursued before the Beijing Olympics in 2008. All that ever led to, he argues, was grief. “We [should] answer our critics with force, because that is all they have ever given to us”, he says, bemoaning that fact that even China’s heralded economic system has been built on the “blood and sweat of Chinese cheap labour to make the western consumers rich”.

But there is a big problem in adopting a more hardline course. Wang Hui, among the most respected leftists, says: “the US comes to our borders, and sometimes is inside our borders”. America remains a country with 680 military installations in 120 countries, a $780-billion defence budget, and technical capacity decades ahead of anyone else. Even the Chinese military’s strategy of focusing on non-conventional capacity-building in “information systems” has been hit in the confrontations with Google. The nationalists see the latter as an inevitable warning-shot from the US: go back into your boxes once more.

A report published in March 2010 vividly illustrates why the doves are so concerned. In 2008-09, China’s military spending increased by 14% to $80 billion. A much less noticed figure is the $85 billion budget for internal security. China spends more on policing itself than it does on protecting itself from the outside world. This gives tangible insight into the vulnerabilities of the internal situation. The doves know well that if China had not achieved 9% growth in 2009, if it had shrunk like several major western economies, the regime would have been hit by enormous unrest. Chinese politics exist on an economic cliff-edge (see “China: inside strain, outside spleen”, 25 March 2010).

A difficult transition

Both doves and (probably) hawks know that in the period until 2015-20 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will have to face acute challenges. Among the most acute will be establishing a proper legal system where courts might one day hold the party to account against its will; a proper legal basis for civil society to prevent social explosion; and a system of accountability that can address the issue of corruption. China towards 2020 will be a society where two people of working age will be supporting one who is retired, and where the gender imbalance resulting from the one-child policy will produce a surplus of 50 million single men. There is peril here for the CCP leadership at every step (see “China’s shadow sector: power in pieces”, 14 September 2009).

Indeed, so great are the tasks ahead that the the 2007-10 period - the very time when much of the rest of the world suffered during the economic downturn - may even come to be viewed by the top party bosses as being as good as it would ever get for China.

But there is no escape from emerging problems, and there are no easy options in confronting them. And a Chinese elite divided among itself is a recipe for more disagreement, attrition and volatility in relation to the outside world (see “China’s coming struggle for power”, 14 May 2009).

The Chinese leadership’s awareness of the vulnerabilities of its position is reflected in prime minister Wen Jiabao’s comment directly to President Obama in November 2009: “We do not want to be in a G2. We are not ready. We have too many of our own problems”. The United States and other western countries should show a similar realism: by supporting the Beijing doves as China approaches a painful (and perhaps imminent) political transition, while being clear about their own national interests. If the west gets it right, China may yet emerge on the other side as a modernised country and a more stable and more amenable partner - rather than the aggressive nationalist behemoth much of the world fears and some influential voices in China are tempted by.

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Kerry Brown is an associate fellow on the Asia programme, Chatham House. He is the author of Struggling Giant: China in the 21st Century (Anthem Press, 2007), The Rise of the Dragon: Inward and Outward Investment in China in the Reform Period 1978-2007 (Woodhead, 2008) and Friends and Enemies: The Past, Present and Future of the Communist Party of China (Anthem Press, 2009). His website is here

Also by Kerry Brown in openDemocracy:

"China in 2009: a year for surprise" (14 January 2009)

"China's giant struggle" (5 February 2009)

"China's coming struggle for power" (14 May 2009)

"China's Tiananmen moment: the party rules" (3 June 2009)

"Xinjiang: China's high-security alert" (14 July 2009)

"China's shadow sector: power in pieces" (17 September 2009)

"Chimerica: Obama visits Beijing" (27 October 2010)

"North Korea's fate, Chimerica's test" (7 December 2009) - with Jiyoung Song

"China and Liu Xiaobo: the weakness of strength" (11 January 2010)

"Gao Zhisheng and China's question" (3 February 2010)

"China: inside strain, outside spleen" (25 March 2010)