China in the Times to Come (Part II)

Are U.S. officials in danger of losing sight of the real motivations and aims of the Chinese regime?

May 22, 2007

Are U.S. officials in danger of losing sight of the real motivations and aims of the Chinese regime?

China is an extraordinarily diverse country, including not just Han Chinese and numerous minority cultures. It also has Hong Kong — the freest market economy on the planet.

China in the Times to Come
by Chas W. Freeman
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

And it has Macau, once an Asian version of Boston’s “combat zone.” Now, it is an ever glitzier Oriental Las Vegas and the playground of princelings from all over.

With two million Taiwanese — 10% of them — now living on the Chinese mainland, Taiwan is also de facto part of “greater China” despite its still unsettled political relationship with the other parts of the emerging Chinese commonwealth.

To deal effectively with China, Americans need to understand it in terms of its own complexities and authentic aspirations. This is unlikely to be achieved by officials engaged in writing narrowly focused and highly tendentious reports mandated by the U.S. Congress to justify the single-issue agendas.

More often than not, these products are the fruits of our military-industrial complex or, for that matter, our humanitarian-industrial complex.

Predictions about China based on a priori reasoning, ideologically induced delusions, hearsay, conjecture or mirror-imaging have been frequent and numerous. They have racked up a remarkable record of unreliability.

Contrary to repeated forecasts, the many imperfections of China’s legal system have neither prevented it from developing a vigorous market economy nor inhibited foreign investment, to cite just a few examples.

China continues to attract more foreign investment than any other country, including our own. China’s failure to democratize and its continuing censorship of the media, including the Internet, have not stifled its economic progress or capacity to innovate, which are increasingly impressive.

China’s perverse practices with respect to human rights have not cost China’s Communist Party or its government their legitimacy. On the contrary, polling data suggests that Chinese have a very much higher regard for their political leaders and government than Americans currently do for ours.

Furthermore, despite the apparent nostalgia for the aggressive expansionism of our now inconveniently vanished Soviet rivals, there is no evidence that Beijing is at all tempted to recapitulate Moscow’s suicidal effort to seek military parity with the United States.

China does not accept the logic of mutually assured destruction and it shows no interest in procuring the strategic lift, bomber forces, carrier strike groups, amphibious warfare or command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities that give U.S. armed forces their unrivaled capacity to conduct offensive operations in faraway places.

As a developing nation with 14 countries on its borders (including such formidable former adversaries as Russia, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and India, plus an unfinished civil war with other Chinese on Taiwan and the U.S. Navy and Air Force just off its shores), China has plenty of reasons to focus on building a credible capacity to defend its own territory. And it has few, if any, reasons to develop a capability for the projection of force around the globe.

And if it were somehow to forget these reasons and to seek to compete with us militarily for global dominion, we Americans would have plenty of warning.

None of this means that we should cease to care about the things we care about — or refrain from seeking ways to stand with those within China who share our perspective about what is good for their country. Nor does it suggest that we should be unconcerned about how China may exercise its increasing wealth and power or abandon worst-case analysis of this.

But it does emphasize that we cannot afford to confuse prescription with description — or to focus on the China of our dreams or nightmares rather than the one that exists. The actual China is one that has plenty of problems that are remote from our recent experience.

The fact is that, while China is no longer a weak country and is no longer the least bit isolated, it is still a poor country and parts of it remain desperately primitive.

Chinese leaders’ modesty in the face of foreign amazement at their country’s economic progress is not feigned. It reflects a realistic appreciation, born of personal experience with conditions in places like Gansu and Tibet, of the enormous challenges and the several decades their country must traverse before it can achieve its national goal of becoming a moderately well-off society.

In this context, China’s oft-stated obsession with assuring a peaceful international environment in which it can concentrate on domestic social and economic development makes perfect sense. It is therefore credible.

As the United States once did, China focuses on domestic development and seeks friends and commerce abroad, not enemies or entangling alliances.

But, poor and backward as much of it may be, China’s rapid growth and its sheer size — more than a fifth of the human race living in an area about the size of the United States — call it to an ever more important role in the management of the world’s affairs.

A few examples: Chinese capital markets remain only semi-developed and far short of their potential. However, we have recently seen that when Shanghai has heartburn, the world’s stockbrokers get the hiccoughs.

Quite amazingly, one can now rouse a U.S. audience from slumber by talking about the dollar-yuan exchange rate or China’s plan to set up an official “investment company” and cut back on purchases of U.S. “treasuries!”

Four years ago, China’s initial fumbling as it tried to control severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) gave the world a real scare. (We must all hope it will do better with the flu pandemic that its poultry farms may now be brewing up.)

Polls show that, despite its singularly unappealing political system, China has become, by a considerable margin, the most admired country all around the world.

And, no one still dismisses the PLA as a “junkyard army.” China’s recent anti-satellite test, growing participation in UN peacekeeping missions, and near tripling of defense spending since 2000 mark its emergence as a considerable military power.”