Aiming to contain China would be a historic blunder

A new consensus of implacable hostility toward China is building across the American political spectrum, from right to left. China’s mercantilist trade practices and increasing repression at home — including, most recently, a crackdown on Marxist students at Peking University agitating for working class rights — offer plenty of ammunition to  belligerents spoiling for a fight.

To be sure, the present leadership of the party state is doing China’s prospects no favors by casting off the “seek truth from facts” pragmatism of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, which brought that once-impoverished nation to where it is today. The kind of harsh censorship and demand for ideological conformity that characterized the Mao era, and which is evidently being revived today, is what stalled China’s modern rise in the first place. But here, there is little the Western democracies can do but show by example that they can effectively govern themselves by transcending today’s polarized post-truth politics through other than illiberal means.

The West can, and should, join together to curb China’s mercantilist policies. But the strategists behind “America First” nationalism seek not only to foster fair and reciprocal economic relations with China, but to also isolate it and thwart its development path to technological modernization. That approach is a historic blunder which will result in irrevocable conflict.

China’s leaders never think about the future without remembering the past. Uppermost in their minds is never again falling behind the West technologically, as it did during the Ming and Qing dynasties, which eventually led to the colonial domination of their “century of humiliation” between 1839 and 1949. Chinese President Xi Jinping laid down his redline marker when he uncompromisingly insisted to Henry Kissinger in Beijing last week that China has “the right to choose its own development path.”

Former treasury secretary Hank Paulson is so worried about the rapid slide in U.S.-China relations that he recently warned at a forum in Singapore of a “full-blown Cold War” and an “economic iron curtain” descending on the world. “I simply cannot see how the international system can endure when the two countries that comprise some 40 percent of global GDP and over 50 percent of global growth are working at cross-purposes, attempting to de-integrate their two economies and contesting the foundations of a rules-based order at every turn,” he observed with alarm.

In The WorldPost this week, we discuss how to address the China challenge in a way that defuses this epochal clash so that an unravelling post-war order does not lead to a pre-war era. The wisest approach is not to contain China, but to maintain a balance of power in the region so no power dominates while building solid bridges of cooperation on climate action, North Korean disarmament and other areas where interests converge.

Writing on the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, Graham Allison ponders the lessons of that catastrophe in order to prevent the next great war — between the United States and China. He also looks to the experience of the more recent past. “What we need is nothing less than a new strategic concept that redefines the essence of this relationship,” he writes. “For inspiration and clues, we should consider the way J.F.K. reframed the U.S. rivalry with the Soviet Union. In his celebrated commencement address at American University just months before he was assassinated, he proposed moving beyond unlimited Cold War to build a ‘world safe for diversity.’ Without wavering in his conviction that a U.S.-led free world was superior to the Communist empire, he suggested nonetheless that the United States could find a way to live with a deadly adversary that championed values he abhorred.”

“Could the United States and China find their way to a dynamic in which they compete peacefully?” Allison asks. “Could we invent a new concept that combines ruthless competition in some arenas with deep cooperation in others?”

Jonathan Hillman points out the danger of shortsighted U.S. policy, which he says is driving China and Russia — historical adversaries — into a de facto alliance against the West.

In an interview, former U.S. defense secretary Ash Carter spells out where he agrees and where he departs from Trump’s new approach of containing China’s rise outlined last month by Vice President Pence. “We don’t have a China policy,” he says of America’s strategic orientation over recent decades. “We have an Asia policy. That policy has been structured for 70 years on a bipartisan basis as a principled, inclusive network — a mesh of political, diplomatic, economic and military relationships with many nations, rather than one-on-one bilateral relationships only. This American-led system gave a region with no NATO the peace to create the Asian miracle.”

Carter continues: “To give up the network approach would be to cede the battlefield to China, which excels at coercive us-versus-them relationships where it can apply the unified political, economic and military tools of a Communist dictatorship. So pure bilateralism disfavors U.S. interests.”

He further adds, “There must be elements of self-protective containment of Chinese coercion in U.S. policy, but overall containment like our Cold War approach to the U.S.S.R. is not practical with America’s largest trading partner. We didn’t trade with the U.S.S.R. Moreover, no Asian countries will join a U.S. or Chinese bloc even if we declared one. We are strengthened, however, as China self-isolates.”

On this latter point, China is facing a rude awakening from a key partner in its Belt and Road initiative. Malaysian Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir, who has already criticized China for “unequal treaties” with his country and suggested a “new colonialism” is in the works, is poised to cancel major infrastructure projects financed by China.

“As Mahathir actively seeks to counter China’s influence,” Richard Javad Heydarian writes from Kuala Lumpur, “he is turning his country into the region’s new face of resistance against the Middle Kingdom. And where Malaysia goes, the region will likely follow. … By threatening to cancel big-ticket Chinese infrastructure deals, Malaysia has helped puncture the lure of Beijing’s mega economic initiatives.”

Turning to the trade conflict, former director-general of the World Trade Organization Pascal Lamy writes from Paris that “paradoxically, protectionism has presented an opportunity to make critical reforms: It was Trump’s recent round of tariffs, which violate WTO rules, that may well be the trigger for updating those rules, a process that has remained stalled and elusive for too many years. Those who value fostering a fair global trading system that works for all should seize this chance.”

Untying the U.S.-China knot is the top challenge. “America’s pushback against ‘Made in China 2025,’ the Middle Kingdom’s effort at technological modernization, is symptomatic of the problems with the global trading system,” Lamy notes. “China’s trade practices — including opaque, trade-distorting subsidization of high-tech products — need to be disciplined by stronger WTO rules. But technically, Beijing is right to argue that it abides by current WTO restrictions because the rules on industrial subsidies are too vague. And it will probably argue that rules about agricultural subsidies also need strengthening, which U.S. farmers may not like.”

Lamy’s deeper argument for reform is that the WTO no longer fits what he calls “the actual reality in the 21st century of ‘one world, three systems.’ The U.S. system is hyper-capitalist, individualistic and entrepreneurial; China’s mixes a strong collectivist state with uneven market competition; Europe’s social market system and many others stand somewhere in between. These systems must be able to coexist and exchange goods and services as well as facilitate people’s mobility across their divergent economic and social models.”

Finally, don’t miss this striking snapshot of the times. At last weekend’s ceremonies in Paris commemorating WWI, cellist Yo Yo Ma brought Bach to the center of global tensions, performing this melancholy lament before Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Putin, all lined up in a row:

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.