The US’ China Policy: A Perspective from Asia
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By Bo Yuan Chang

The US’ China Policy: A Perspective from Asia

Jun. 27, 2017  |     |  0 comments

It seems that the apparent disappointment in the US’ China policy stems from a deeply-rooted parochialism in Western political culture. Hence it is no surprise that authors such as Harding (2015) have questioned the success of the US’ China policy based on such grounds as lack of political reform within China, China’s increasingly assertiveness in maritime policies, and China’s challenging of US hegemony in hitherto Western privileged “spheres” such as Africa and the Middle East. This is similar to Moore’s (2017) concerns of the increasing difficulty of avoiding a “Thucydides Trap” between the US and China, ostensibly stemming from China’s growing espionage activities, military spending, its disobedience in the South China Sea, and so on.


Hence, the simple conclusion: the US’ China policy has failed because China will not accept liberal-democratic ways of governance and will not comply to international rules. However, this is a fallacy. China is huge enough to play by its own “rules of the game.” Even if it does democratize, this will not occur overnight, considering China’s vast size and radically different historical trajectory from the West. In fact, the Americans should not be too quick to judge the failure of the US’ China policy, because if looked from a “relative” perspective (moral relativism), it could be argued that it has indeed succeeded in many ways.


US’ China Foreign Policy Has Not Failed

Never in the history of China have decisions ever been made based on one-man-one-vote. The Emperor’s rule over the nation is unquestionable, and he took no responsibility in the governance of any area beyond his direct jurisdiction. He sat comfortably on the Dragon Throne, awaiting the rest of the world to pay tribute to his empire. This is not dissimilar with China’s one-man rule during Mao’s era, when the Chairman was the “Red Sun in the Hearts of the People of the World” (Huan, 1966 edited). The ahistorical structural theories failed to capture this very reality: 30 years after China entered the Westphalian system, the nation still resorted to one-man rule. Although it operated within the definition of Westphalia, where a state is deemed to have “supreme, unqualified and exclusive rule” over a specifically delineated boundary (Baylis, Owens and Smith, 2017, pp. 24); it was but one man (Mao) who exerted such authority.


The Americans believe that a nation is strong when the individual is free, innovative, and hardworking; the Chinese believe that a nation is strong when individuals are united, collective, and hardworking. This is the difference, or indeed a perpetual battle, between individualism and collectivism; between the rule of a democratic parliament and the rule of one man; between decisions made between a group of individuals and decisions made by one individual.


If it is acknowledged that decisions in China (pre-Deng) had hitherto been made by one-man rule, and that China will not undertake any responsibilities beyond its cultural zones; then, considering the sheer pace and magnitude that Beijing has opened itself up to the world — that it has partaken in countless multilateral decision-making processes — WTO, ARF, APEC, IMF, APT, ASEM, SCO, G20, East Asia Summit, etc. — and considering its gradual decentralization from one-man rule (though contestable, but it is at least arguable that China is either a centralized democracy or illiberal democracy; certainly not totalitarian); China has already been profoundly liberalized; socially, politically, as well as economically. A substantial part of that owes to continued Western engagement, rather than containment, of China.


The US’ pessimism about Chinese behavior (Harding, 2015) stemmed from its preconception that a sort of “exchange relations” could be expected from US-China relations: if the US engages with China, then China will adopt Western norms of human rights, the Western conception of democratic governance, and so on. This was a fatal misunderstanding of China’s unique characteristics: it was once at the centre of the world (tianxia), its geographical size is vast, and it had its own governance system based on hierarchy and sovereign inequality for at least two millennia (Kang, 2012; Zhang, 2013). Should the West continue to expect that China will be fascinated by its form of the “end of history” (liberal democracy) (Fukuyama, 1992), it will only face greater disappointments.


Not only would China not be fascinated by the West’s “end of history, it will seek to develop its own version of history — perhaps the “end of Chinese history.” If we take Xi Jinping’s strong emphasis for China to “follow and walk the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” then the Chinese version of the “end of history” may not look too different from authoritarian developmentalism or state-led capitalism. Considering China’s historical trajectory, the criteria for judging the success of the US’ China policy should thus be adjusted to assess the extent to which China has decentralized its political authority as well as the extent to which it has played a constructive role in international politics. Two perspectives could be presented:


First, that the US’ China policy has utterly failed, because it has failed to “lecture” China into behaving according to international norms and law. Moral absolutism is not wrong, but if foreign policy is assessed in such a way, then not only the US’ China policy, but all foreign policies toward China would inevitably fail, because China will continue to be itself and carve its own way based on its cultural identity — it will not forget its “one hundred years of national humiliation” (Wang, 2012).

In the face of a rising China which must develop its own path with “Chinese characteristics,” the US might either engage with it, or contain it.

Or second, that the US’ China policy has succeeded in liberalizing the Chinese economy, and that the two (especially China) have benefitted from trade (Moore, 2014). China’s political authority has decentralized despite some recent centralizing tendencies. But the understanding will be that there will be no one-man-one-vote in the near, or even the distant, future. One-man-one-vote has not been materialized for few millennia, why should it be realized soon?


The extent to which China has behaved like a responsible stakeholder is contestable. Its Beijing Consensus model of developmentalism has arguably received a massive welcome from the developing world, for (a) China does not have a history of imperial colonialism as the West; and (b) China’s authoritarian development model is more geared to the realities of the developing world (Lammers, 2007; World Foresight Forum, 2011). But concurrently, China is increasingly contesting the international “rules of the game,” with examples of its assertive maritime policies as well as its activism in shaping international politics to resemble the Beijing Consensus — the AIIB, Confucius Institutes, and the Belt and Road Initiative could be seen as expressions of Chinese soft power.


In the face of a rising China which must develop its own path with “Chinese characteristics,” the US might either engage with it, or contain it. Whatever the US’ choice is, it should first abandon the false hope that China will return its favor by playing according to international rules and regulations. The US should not forget that it is dealing with a Dragon that has received kowtows for two millennia (Zhang, 2013).


Nature of US-China Relations

I am not pessimistic about the future of US-China relations; in fact, it is my view that this is not the “end of history” but the beginning of a new history — the beginning of a series of interactions between two seemingly contending worldviews: one based on equality and another based on hierarchy; one based on individualism and another based on collectivism; one based on Hegelian dialectics and another based on Yin-Yang dialectics. Moore’s (2014) analysis of the dyadic culture between China and the US from the 1990s to the present shows mostly “Lockean” relations between the two, which means the nature of US-China relations is simultaneously competitive and cooperative.


One thing is for sure: one need not base his pessimism on structuralism (structural anarchy), for China does not conceive of structural anarchy. It instead believes in “structural hierarchy”—or sovereign inequality (Kang, 2012). Perhaps the reason for the cooperative-as-well-as-competitive relations between China and the US is because the two do not interact with each other in a Hegelian dialectical manner (where two opposing poles confront each other directly), but instead interact in a Yin-Yang dialectical manner, in which both “clash” (confrontation) and “dialogue” (cooperation) at the same time when the two poles interact (Qin, 2016).


This would also serve to buttress the argument that structural anarchy is purely an Eurocentric assumption based on Western/Hegelian worldviews; and that the Sinic/Yin-Yang worldview would be simply different from the Eurocentric-view rather than directly opposing it. Otherwise, how could one explain the Lockean relations between the US and China, ostensibly after China had abandoned its communist (Maoist-style Hegelian) and embraced its cultural (Yin-Yang) identity?


Future of US-China Relations


My concern about the future of US-China relations stems not from Mearsheimer’s inevitability prophecy (Mearsheimer, 2014), but from (i) the ineptness of the West to fully comprehend China and (ii) the possibility that China genuinely sees itself as the centre of all under heaven. But it is perceptible that (ii) is graver than (i), for (i) could be easily rectified so long as the US takes a step back to understand the limitations of its own worldview and learn to see the world from non-Eurocentric perspectives. The US is a liberal democratic state, and its global leadership has been relatively successful, judging from the spread of liberal democratic forms of governance all over the world and the US’s firm commitment to transparency in governance, multilateralism, freedom of expression, and so on. In short, the US’ view of China is plainly a misperception, which should be easily rectifiable — considering that it is committed to openness and liberal values; but the Chinese story would be radically different.


It is especially difficult to forget the Chinese tributary system when one comes across China’s plans such as the Belt and Road Initiative, its commitment to the development of Eurasian overland transport (Garver, 2006), and so on. All these would correspond with Xi’s proposition of a “Community of Common Destiny” (FMPRC, 2016). Who, then, should legitimately be the master (or leader) of such a “Community”? Does it not seem that China may once again be on top of all under heaven when all under heaven is linked together in a “Common Destiny”? Should that day arrive, will all under heaven kowtow to the Chinese Dragon? Questions like these remain unanswered. China will have to tell the world how it is going to transform its old “all under heaven” practice into a new type of international behavior that is acceptable to all.



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