China: What’s the Big Mystery?

The latest recruitment brochure from the Central Intelligence Agency, which beckons the uninitiated to “be a part of a mission that’s larger than all of us,” opens to reveal an image of the red-roofed entrance to Beijing’s Forbidden City. From an oversized portrait on the ancient wall, Chairman Mao and his Mona Lisa smile behold the vast granite expanse of Tiananmen Square. The Cold War is over, and the Soviet Union is gone. The cloak-and-dagger games of Berlin and Prague have been replaced by business and tourism. But China—land of ancient secrets, autocratic leaders, and memories of suppressed uprisings—still holds out the promise of world-historical struggle that can help the CIA meet its recruitment goals.

It’s not difficult to understand the Bureau’s interest in China. The picture of Tiananmen Square and the walled-off Forbidden City sums it up: size and mystery and potential threat. It’s an irresistible combination for clandestine operations. The big mystery of China has also transfixed pretty much everyone else around the world, from CEOs and filmmakers to language students and ambitious politicians.

And, of course, China interests us at Foreign Policy In Focus. We’ve covered China many times over the last decade. FPIF contributors have explored China’s human rights record, U.S. perceptions of China as a military threat, turmoil in Beijing’s domestic politics, the contradictions of Chinese economic growth, the debate over its accession to the World Trade Organization, and many other aspects of China’s rise to global status.

But our new China Focus takes a more comprehensive and integrated approach, and it comes at a very intriguing moment in world politics.

As the most aggressive phase of U.S. unilateralism subsides like a feverish illness, a new “multipolar moment” opens up before us. And China is the country most poised to take advantage of the political opportunity. When the UN needs peacekeepers, it is turning increasingly to China, which is now the 13 th largest contributor to missions. When African countries need infrastructure investment—from oil pipelines to sports complexes—they invite in a Chinese delegation. When the United States needs its chestnuts pulled out of the fire in North Korea, it has solicited help from China. Indeed, through trade and diplomacy, Beijing is giving Washington a run for its money in every region of the world.

With China emerging as the new global go-to guy, FPIF decided to do an assessment of this growing influence and its impact on U.S. foreign policy. We want to give some sense of the size of China’s global endeavor and pierce some of the mystery surrounding its motivations. And we intend to tackle the question that has hung inside the Beltway ever since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger engineered their rapprochement of the 1970s. Is China friend or foe? Or, as each administration since the Big Opening has concluded, some improbable combination of the two?

The Mysteries of Congagement

During the Clinton administration, two views of China competed for supremacy. The outsiders, who called themselves the “Blue Team,” touted China’s growing military threat: its desire to modernize its army, build a “blue water” navy, and achieve strategic advantage over Taiwan. They focused their wrath at what they called the “Red Team” inside the administration, which supported increasing engagement with China. U.S. trade with China grew six-fold in the 1990s, from $20 billion to $120 billion. The United States supported China’s bid to enter the World Trade Organization. Economic engagement with Beijing was becoming less a choice than a necessity.

George W. Bush seemed to be the Blue Team’s dream candidate. He was tough on communism, preferred to think of China as a “strategic competitor” rather than the Clinton administration’s formulation of “strategic partner,” and supported missile defense over China’s opposition. Taking office, he pushed through an arms package for Taiwan and seemed about to make good on his pledge to do away with “strategic ambiguity” in favor of a tilt toward Taipei.

Candidates can talk tough about China. But presidents tend to become rather practical when they eye Beijing from their perch in the Oval Office. Particularly after September 11, China became a strategic partner in deed though not in name. On global terrorism, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and the imperative of global economic growth, Washington and Beijing saw largely eye to eye. The cynical might attribute this shared vision to economics. From 2000 to 2005, U.S.-China trade grew another 150% to nearly $300 billion.

Still, the Bush administration hasn’t turned into a team of panda-huggers. From Washington’s perspective, China remains the threat looming on the horizon. The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review talks of the country’s “potential to compete militarily with the United States” even as it waxes optimistic about China as a “partner in addressing common security challenges.” Meanwhile, the congressionally tasked commission on U.S.-China relations, in its most recent report, complained this past November that China had not yet become a “responsible stakeholder” in the international community. “While China is a global actor, its sense of responsibility has not kept up with its expanding power,” argued commission chair Larry Wortzel.

The U.S. government obviously hasn’t made up its collective mind about China. Rather than choose between friend or foe, Washington prefers both, a combination of containment and engagement, or “congagement.” As a friend who keeps our economy afloat and as a foe that justifies full-spectrum military spending, China is useful to the United States. Never before has a rival for U.S. power held us in quite such a tight clinch nor attracted our attention quite so alluringly.

Inside the Dynamo

China’s foreign policy of persuading friends and influencing enemies is a triumph of realism. Whether at the UN, in its relationship with its neighbors, or in new partnerships with faraway countries, China has used quiet diplomacy, respect for sovereignty, and lots of hard currency to acquire access and resources. It hasn’t thrown its weight around. “China always regards itself as a weak, small, less powerful country,” China’s ambassador to the UN Wang Guangya told journalist James Traub. “My feeling is that for the next 30 years, China will remain like this. China likes to punch underweight, as you put it.”

China’s new foreign policy is a dramatic change from the days of the Cultural Revolution and even from 10 years ago when, for instance, Beijing largely watched from the sidelines as the United States and North Korea danced perilously close to war. These changes result in part from a shift in what Chinese Communists used to call the “correlation of forces.” The collapse of the Soviet Union, the intensification of globalization, and the failure of the United States, after the horrors of Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia, to support a viable multilateral security system have all added up to a fundamentally different international environment.

For a country of 1.3 billion people, China moved surprisingly quickly to take advantage of the new opportunities. It patched up relations with Russia, provided a quiet counterweight to U.S. hegemony at the UN, grabbed the tail of globalization, and then leapt aboard, and adopted a multilateral approach that contrasted sharply not only with its earlier foreign policy instincts but also with growing U.S. unilateralism. China has become the strong silent type that plays off the brash U.S. cowboy. It’s an image that goes over well with global audiences. In international polls, perceptions of China’s influence in the world are significantly more positive than attitudes toward the United States.

The changes in China’s foreign policy reflect the dynamism within Chinese society. Rapid economic growth has unleashed a demand for energy inputs and external markets for Chinese goods. For all the talk of the perils of rising Chinese consumption patterns, the U.S. government has been complaining about the opposite: the Chinese save too much. Many of the goods produced in Chinese factories, then, have to find consumers elsewhere. The spendthrift United States willingly absorbs a range of made-to-order products, from Mardi Gras beads to American flags, and Washington’s $200-billion trade imbalance with Beijing is larger than its gap with any other country.

This economic dynamism has taken place within a political structure still dominated by the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese development model—compared to the neoliberal transitions in Eastern Europe or, more tragically, Russia—relies heavily on the state and the presumed stability provided by centralized political control. Of course, China is no longer the Leninist state of the 1970s. Direct village elections began in 1988 and now reach 75% of the population. A comparatively radical rehaul of the legal system—the creation of a new regulatory apparatus, the 200-fold increase in the number of lawyers from 1981 to 1998, a reform of the judiciary—has pushed China in the direction of the rule of law in China. An emerging civil society of non-governmental organizations is tackling economic and environmental issues. The Chinese have even welcomed the Republican Party to contribute to the political reform process.

China has not become one vast New England town meeting. Crackdowns on dissidents, problems in the judicial system, and pervasive corruption represent more than mere growing pains. The one-party state remains unassailable. The lack of independent trade unions or a real social safety net exposes a large portion of the population to the often very cold wind of economic reform. Millions of workers, peasants, retirees, Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) activists, and others have taken to the streets and clashed, sometimes violently, with police. In 2004, for example, 3.7 million people participated in 74,000 protests. That number rose to 84,000 protests in 2005. Carnegie’s Albert Keidel argues that protestors are by and large not seeking regime change or Western-style democracy, simply fair compensation for their farmland, fair wages for their work, or a fair taxation system.

Enlarging the economy has been China’s answer to so many of its internal problems, from polarizing wealth to disgruntled farmers. Economic growth depends on a stable security environment—avoiding a war on the Korean peninsula, for instance, or in the South China Sea. It also pushes China to make as many valuable allies as possible, regardless of their human rights record, their governing ideology, or their anti-Chinese history. If you ignore our problems, China promises, we will ignore yours.

Spotlight on China

In FPIF’s China Focus, our contributors will look at China’s role in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. They’ll assess China’s positions on labor, environment, and trade. And they’ll provide vital information about China’s new multilateralism, its perspective on the “near abroad” including North Korea and Taiwan, and its approach to the control and dissemination of information.

To kick off the feature, James Nolt of the World Policy Institute and Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies go head to head in a virtual debate on whether the United States and China have converging interests or irreconcilable differences. Yu Bin of Wittenberg University gives us a peek into great power competition in Central Asia and whether the Shanghai Cooperation Organization represents a threat or a partner for the United States. And Rachel Stohl of the Center for Defense Information gets to the bottom of the conflict between the United States and Europe over selling arms to Beijing.

Over the next weeks, we’ll be featuring articles by Jennifer Turner, Wang Fei-ling, Evelyn Goh, Michael Klare, Akwe Amosu, Enrique Dussel, Peter Beck, Samuel Kim, and many others.

Is China friend or foe or something in between? Visit www.fpif.org to find out what FPIF and 1.3 billion of your fellow global citizens are thinking.

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the International Relations Center.