Letter from China: Is it a ‘peaceful rise’? U.S. shouldn’t bet on it

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
Howard W. French
SHANGHAI During his visit to the United States, China’s Hu Jintao will work hard to convey a message that is emerging as a central theme of his presidency: His country is not a threat to the United States; indeed, it doesn’t even wish to be seen as a challenger.
In the recent past, China’s leaders have struggled over how best to convey this thought, issuing tortured slogans like “peaceful rise,” for example, that are adopted and dropped with equal ambivalence.
The message coming from Beijing these days is that the country’s leadership is so preoccupied with domestic problems that it has neither the time nor the inclination to challenge America’s lingering pre-eminence.
A word to the wise: don’t believe it.
It is absolutely true that China’s own problems consume most of its energy, and will continue to for the foreseeable future.
Whether the country’s rickety system can muddle through is anything but a foregone conclusion. It is increasingly outpaced by change on the ground, and by colossal problems of every kind – from the environment and energy to an ever more sophisticated and freethinking citizenry.
In the meantime, though, and regardless of the answer, no amount of stealthy diplomatic posturing can obscure the fact that China is growing more powerful and more assertive by the day, and in the process, a new world order is being shaped.
Lest anyone suspect hostility in this rebuttal of China’s new line, one hastens to add that this is exactly the way it should be. China obviously constitutes a huge slice of humanity. It has an exceptionally long history of power on the world stage, against which the last two centuries of relative weakness are a mere blip. And like any fast- rising power, its re-emergence will change the rules of the game.
The devil, as they say, is in the details, which is why one might hope for more candor from the country’s leaders, both toward the outside world and toward their own people. They are still spoon-fed a saccharine-laced and ultimately dangerous form of history that paints their China as the eternal innocent: happily self-contained and fair and courtly toward others.
For all of Hu’s denials, though, the outlines of China’s challenge to the United States are already beginning to take shape, and they are nothing less than sweeping.
In keeping with the emphasis on stealth, the first element in China’s recent playbook is to stay out of the way while the United States undermines its own position in the world.
“China is becoming attractive to developing countries not only because of what China is doing, but because of the what the U.S. is doing,” said Zheng Yongnian director of research at the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham in Britain. “It is quite natural for them to like China if they don’t like what America is doing. They want an alternative, in the same way as countries looked to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.”
The Soviet parallel, however, ends there. Zheng said that in this phase of its development, the most effective way for China to counterbalance the United States is to have pro-American policies, hence the calming rhetoric.
The United States has “overwhelmingly emphasized military force, which creates a zero sum game, which many people cannot accept,” Zheng said. China, by contrast, is doing what Washington once excelled at, emphasizing economic multilateralism: embracing regional and international organizations, signing trade pacts and becoming an ever bigger player in the foreign aid game.
China’s advice to the world’s poor resembles its strategy at home: “development first, politics later.” This stress on the overwhelming importance of stability – no matter how undemocratic, corrupt or environmentally irresponsible the regime – has even led to the coining of a phrase, the Beijing Consensus. This highlights the contrast with the so-called Washington Consensus that emphasizes elections, free trade and accepting the guidance of the U.S.-dominated World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
Beijing has carefully avoided endorsement or even explicit mention of any Beijing Consensus, determinedly keeping its head down while plowing forward. And the fruits of this approach are becoming ever more obvious: Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has just visited the South Pacific strongly boosting ties there, where Washington and Australia seem in decline.
President Hu will fly on to Nigeria, the most important country in another neglected region. And China’s appeal now stretches deep into the United States’ own backyard, Latin America.
Maintaining plausible deniability of the coming challenge is merely a passing phase, however.
Washington is making a mistake to think of China’s rise mainly in military terms, for there is far more to it than that. One senses Beijing is serious about wanting to avoid disastrous wars and ruinous arms races. Its challenge, instead, is to another key source of American power, the international system.
What it proposes as a replacement for the status quo is sometimes called tian xia, or under the heavens. It is an obscure sounding but remarkably simple scheme that places all the nations of the world in a rules-based system that is not strictly egalitarian but would be governed by rules. Note to the United States: there is no room for a global hegemony.
As it evolves on a spectrum somewhere between Nazi Germany and contemporary Scandinavia, China will use its growing muscle in trade and finance to draw developing countries, particularly authoritarian ones attracted by its corporatist capitalism, into its embrace.
So when do the masks drop? When does the challenge become explicit?
“My feeling is that they are waiting for a situation where they feel secure enough,” said Wang Fei-Ling, a professor of International Affairs at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. “A settlement of things in the Western Pacific, or China’s becoming strong enough economically so that it no longer matters what Washington might think, or a democratic change in China itself, which would settle the legitimacy issue. Any of these three things would give them great confidence, and fuel a need to speak out more.”

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