Monday, June 20

US policy on China: Quo vadis?

June 21 Update: A note from Simon, after his return from travel, contains his response to this post: "Thank you for the final reply. I agree with your conclusion wholeheartedly. Look forward to repeating the exercise in the future."

(For readers just joining the discussion I've posted a 'file' with links to the China dialogues I reference in this essay. See the following entry.)

It's coming time to wrap up the Simon World-Pundita dialogues on China. Simon and I began our dialogue during a highly contradictory moment in US policy toward China -- "contradictory" long the operative description for US relations with China:

On the one hand several US congressionals were strenuously calling for a much tougher US approach to China's currency peg to the US dollar, China's textile exports, and China's foot-dragging on human rights issues. And an article in Atlantic Monthly and the Pentagon's release of their annual assessment of China's military caused many to wonder if America was starting down the road of a new cold war.

On the other hand, the US government was calling for China to step up to the plate in their role as the US-designated lead negotiator for the Six Party Talks -- a plum role that rightfully should have gone to a US ally in the talks, South Korea.

All this flurry of news about China, which captured many headlines starting in late May, could be taken as a coda to Fareed Zakaria's widely read May 9 cover story for Newsweek magazine. The report (also featured on MSNBC online), titled Does the Future belong to China? could have been subtitled, Mix Confucianism, discipline, communist central planning and dictatorship and presto! a raving success story!"

Yet for all its inaccuracies, evasions and airy dismissal of China's problems with the wave of one sentence, the Newsweek story played back what the US Department of State, the mainstream media and the American investor class had long preferred to hear about China: a comforting myth. China was really too busy making money, pulling itself up by the bootstraps, to be a serious threat to America or to derail economically.

It was against this backdrop of clashing and incomplete views on today's China that Simon and I launched discussion with his first question, "Do you think America's China policy is coherent?"

Simon (an Australian) brought to the discussion his background in economics and a clear-eyed view of China from living and working in Hong Kong for years. My contribution was that of a Washingtonian with a reasonably good knowledge of US foreign policy and the impact of Western development policies on China.

Both sides in the discussion could claim receiving an education by the time the dialogues wound up. The observation from Simon I left unanswered for later this week (after he returns from travel and has time to clear through the pile on his desk) extends far beyond China and goes to the heart of foreign relations for America and all the developed countries:

"I think the problem with your argument is it mixes up notions of multilateralism with notions of a multipolar world."

Pundita is not confused about the two concepts, which doesn't mean my arguments about such don't require tightening up. The problem is that the point Simon brings out is really not an issue in America or anywhere in the developed world -- not as a distinct topic for debate. Yet the issue is central to our time; certainly Bush's preemption and democracy doctrines, and the uproar from many regions in the globe in response, imply this.

One cannot hope to formulate coherent foreign policy for this era without resolving the inherent conflict between an 'enlightened' or liberal-minded multilateralism and the power of regional blocs. Jacques Chirac and other EU leaders who pushed hard for the ratification of the EU Constitution have learned this the hard way. Now they are forced to stop and grapple with the issue.

Perhaps I might have made all this clearer by providing a link to the entire essay called Two Very Different Views of the World instead of quoting a few passages from it in the Never Assume answer to Simon.

The Two Views essay was actually the first I wrote for this blog, even though I published it second. And for several months the essay was linked at the very top of the Pundita sidebar under the heading, The Central Debate.

However, the essay only makes a start at organizing discussion about the clash between multilateralism and multi-polarity. I guess I was waiting for those with vast scholarship to take up the burden of analysis and discussion. Yet whatever scholarly discussion exists on the topic has not emerged in the USA as a public debate. The issue has been drowned out by bitter quarrels between the Left and the Right, Hawks and Doves, and opposing factions in the Republican Party about domestic concerns and the US occupation of Iraq.

Well, Simon's critique has prodded me to another attempt to discuss the issue. For now, I think the two most important observations to emerge from the China dialogues are this:

China's present situation is very complex, and present US policy has ignored the complexity. This had led the US to a passive-aggressive relationship with China.

This in turn helped Beijing (and numerous Western policy analysts) avoid confronting a stark reality: to the extent that China has become successful, they have been carried to success on the back of Western democracies.

So it is now time for American policymakers to gain a clear-eyed view of China -- one that avoids the extremes of demonizing Beijing on the one hand and overlooking the threat that a dictatorship ruling over a large nation poses to civilization, on the other.

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