Commentary

China: Constructive Partner or Emerging Threat?

Is the People’s Republic of China a rising colossus that intends to bully its neighbors and dominate Asia? Should Washington therefore adopt a more hard-line policy toward Beijing on trade, human rights and national security issues?

Or is China a country that has already progressed toward a market economy, a more open society, and a commitment to being a stabilizing, cooperative power?

Those are the questions U.S. policymakers must examine as they consider whether to establish permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with China and support its accession to the World Trade Organization.

The United States and other countries are betting that China’s accession to the WTO will make China a more open society, eventually leading to democratic rule and a more stable and peaceful international policy by Beijing.

But while free trade is necessary for peace, it is not sufficient. The Chinese Communist Party may be willing to sacrifice substantial gains from trade in order to protect its power and privilege. The challenge for the United States is to exploit opportunities for further trade gains and maintain a constructive relationship with China, all while protecting vital American interests.

Unfortunately, the U.S. policy debate thus far has largely been a contest between the Clinton administration’s muddled, inconsistent approach and the extremely confrontational approach advocated by many conservatives. The latter strategy risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of China’s becoming an enemy. Indeed, a growing chorus of voices in Congress and the U.S. foreign policy community argues that China is a belligerent dictatorship and an implacable future enemy of the United States.

While it is true that no one can be certain how China will behave on security issues in the future, unlike Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, China is not a messianic, expansionist power; it is a normal, rising (or reawakening) great power. That can indeed be difficult for other countries to handle at times, but such a country does not pose a malignant security threat.

The best course is to treat China as a normal (albeit sometimes repressive and prickly) great power but avoid the extremes of seeing it as either enemy or strategic partner. The United States would also be wise to encourage other major countries in Asia to think more seriously about how they intend to deal with a rising China. A collection of diffident, militarily weak neighbors, wholly dependent on the United States for protection, is not likely to cause Beijing to behave cautiously.

The Taiwan problem remains an especially dangerous flash point. Any move by Taiwan toward formal independence would surely provoke military action by Beijing. China’s strong economic dependence on Taiwan’s prosperity, however, means that military action will probably be seen as a last resort. Moreover, the election of Chen Shui-bian and the defeat of the long-dominant Nationalist Party are stern reminders to the Chinese Communist Party that its own future is highly uncertain.

Beijing’s biggest dilemma is how to simultaneously allow the private sector to grow and prevent an erosion of the party’s power as market participants demand greater civil liberties and a meaningful political voice.

The domestic tension created by opening China’s economy to the outside world while preventing meaningful political change has to be released sooner or later. Gradualism appears to have worked reasonably well thus far, but the inefficiency of China’s private sector is apparent and corruption is rampant. Wholesale privatization would help solve the problems of inefficiency and corruption but would undermine the last vestiges of party power. So the challenge for China’s leadership is stark.

Cutting off—or even limiting—trade with China in the hope of improving human rights would be self-defeating. Isolating China would strengthen the party and the state while harming the nascent market sector and reducing economic freedom.

Moreover, if free trade is restricted, the probability of conflict between China and the United States will increase. That is why for peace and prosperity it is essential that the U.S. Congress vote in favor of PNTR with China and support its accession to the WTO.

The best concise answer to the question of whether China will be a constructive partner or an emerging threat in the early 21st century was given to us by an independent scholar in Beijing; the answer, he said, will “depend, to a very great extent, on the fate of liberalism in China: a liberal China will be a constructive partner; a nationalistic and authoritarian China will be an emerging threat.”

America must prepare for both possibilities, but its policies should avoid needless snubs and provocations that would undermine the prospect for the emergence of a democratic, peaceful China.

Ted Galen Carpenter and James A. Dorn are scholars at the Cato Institute and coeditors of the forthcoming book China’s Future: Constructive Partner or Emerging Threat?