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The Overreach of the China Hawks

10 115 55
24.10.2020

In “An Answer to Aggression,” (September/October 2020), Aaron Friedberg argues that the United States and its allies and partners should use aggressive policies to contain China. Friedberg repeatedly offers sweeping, unqualified worst-case statements about China’s views, intentions, and actions—playing loose with the facts and exhibiting a lack of understanding of aspects of the Chinese system—to justify zero-sum policy prescriptions. Coercive “push back” policies alone will not compel Beijing to do the United States’ bidding—as Washington’s Cuba policy demonstrates. To the contrary, such policies would increase the risk of conflict, strengthen chauvinistic nationalism in China, and reduce the chances that the United States can work with China to deal with urgent common problems.

U.S. policymakers must adopt a more careful and considered approach. The United States must coordinate with allies and partners not only to deter and compete with China when needed but also to incentivize Beijing to cooperate in addressing shared concerns such as global warming and current and future pandemics. Washington should aim to diminish the likelihood of nuclear war, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and missiles, a costly arms race, and the spread of terrorism. It should seek a stable power balance in the Asia-Pacific region that respects the interests of all countries—including those of China. And it should revise and expand multilateral trade and investment agreements and foster international efforts to better address natural disasters and human rights abuses in all countries.

Such a strategy requires not belligerence and muscle flexing but vigorous and well-funded diplomacy backed by resilient and strategically deployed military forces designed to reinforce stability, not provoke confrontation. Managing the relationship with Beijing is a long-term project that cannot succeed without domestic revitalization, greater unity of national purpose, and a respect for global opinion. But above all, U.S. leaders have to take a much more realistic view of the United States’ relationship with China than is now common in Washington and avoid sliding into Friedberg’s black-and-white vision of confrontation.

Hawkish positions on China often proceed from flawed presumptions. Friedberg claims that the bulk of Beijing’s policy disagreements with the West arise from its authoritarian political system. He ignores the fact that many of China’s international concerns have grown out of long-standing nationalist beliefs and cultural attitudes that long predate communist rule. These include the resentment produced by over a century of predatory Western behavior in East Asia, a profound and at times bristling pride in China’s rise, and deep-seated fears that a more freewheeling domestic political process could jeopardize the stability that has facilitated greater prosperity. Such nationalist attitudes and concerns would prevail even in a democratic China; there is no reason to believe that China’s system of government is what makes Beijing eager to protect what it regards as its territory and reestablish itself as a major power in Asia and the world.

Friedberg’s overzealous reading of the role of ideology in Chinese policy extends to other areas. He argues that China hopes to “divide, discredit, and weaken” democracies, “leaving the United States at the head of what will be, at best, a diminished and enfeebled coalition.” This line of reasoning sees more deliberate intent in China’s behavior than there actually is. As many scholars, including the political scientist Jessica Chen Weiss, have noted, China’s grand strategy is not designed to force acceptance of its political model or undermine democracies. When China grants loans to other countries, for example, it does not distinguish in any discernable way between democracies and nondemocracies, even if its activities at times exacerbate corruption and indirectly erode democratic norms. Friedberg suggests that the United States and many other countries hold a “heightened awareness of a shared danger” coming from China. But in reality, other countries have mixed perceptions of China; they sometimes view the United States, along with China, as threatening their interests. Many countries now carry on more trade with China than they do with the United States, want better economic ties with both Beijing and Washington, and resist being forced to choose between the two powers.

Friedberg contends that the West’s “wager” that diplomatic and economic engagement with China would eventually liberalize the country has “failed to pay off.” Former U.S. officials and others have rebutted the notion that engagement was ever predicated on the political liberalization of China. Closer ties with Beijing have led to Chinese........

© Foreign Affairs


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