Many in the West have tried to coax China to act more “responsibly.” But is it possible for China to ever act “responsibly”? I don’t think so – not because China is inherently not “responsible,” but because an “irresponsible” China is born out of the imagination of an insecure West. In this atmosphere, the only way for the West to deem China to be “responsible” is for China to stop being an independent polity and tow the Western line. Here is a case in point.
Today James Fallows wrote an interesting article on whether China is merely Self-Interested (as any power is) or “Actively Maligned” against the International Order. I won’t repeat what he wrote, suffice for me to quote his reasonable conclusion that:
My experience and judgment are very strongly on the side that the self-interest of a rising China is, more often than not, compatible with the interests of the existing “world order,” notably America’s.
What got my attention is not the conclusion, but a quote he referenced reflecting how many in the West believe China has acted unfairly and irresponsibly at every turn.
It’s not just the economic implications of the undervalued RMB that has people like me (generally though not dogmatically pro-free trade) angry about China’s economic practices. It’s a sense that China doesn’t play by the same rules as everybody else. I don’t know if revaluing the RMB will have positive or negative results. I doubt it will have much of a short-term impact on U.S. unemployment. I suspect it will lead to a Chinese buying spree of American and European assets that will spark a backlash in the opposite direction. (OMG, how did the dollar get so undervalued?)
But I feel strongly in my bones that China needs to start playing on a level field with the rest of the world. It’s not just currency manipulation. The rare earths controversy was kind of a last straw. How can they get away with that kind of stark trade war for political ends? Everyone seems to back off and run scared when China throws a tantrum. I can only applaud Norway for its spine. (Although I wonder if Norway’s government was making the decisions instead of the Nobel Prize Committee, would it have shown as much backbone?)
I believe this started back in the Cold War when we used China as strategic leverage against the Soviet Union, and allowed the Chinese to dictate the world’s position on Taiwan. China hardly seemed like a threat back then, and why not show some sympathy for its impoverished multitudes by not standing entirely on principle? But at this point, it’s become an absurdity — if not moral cowardice — to continue bending the norms of global interaction for fear of being excluded from China’s economic power. No wonder the rest of the emerging world has begun looking to China as a model rather than the US or Europe!
I’m not sure how these feelings should translate into specific policy prescriptions. I suppose I should be more sympathetic to China’s own deep-rooted national feelings that it is just responding to centuries of Western domination. But how long can we continue tiptoeing around these sensitivities while allowing China to play by its own rulebook?
Let me ask: what is China doing that is unfair?
About the Diaoyutai incident, even if presuming that China did impose economic warfare on Japan, the idea that tying politics to economics is inherently unfair and that China is the only nation to commit such uncivilized acts is plainly false and wrong.
The West (especially the U.S.) is the true master of tying economics to politics. It conditions economic aid to political demands in developing countries. It freezes assets of organizations that sport politics it does not like. It imposes sanctions against regimes around the world in the pure pursuit of self interests (the sanction against Iran is only the most recent example). (The WTO framework itself – under which the current complaints are couched – represents the mother of tying economics to politics, where market access is tied directly to political concessions. But that’d have to be the subject of another post.).
So even if China did contemplate using economic coercion to achieve political goals, China hardly is the only power in the world to do so. In the specific Diaoyutai incident, China should have all the right to use economic means to fight back a Japan intent on going on the offensive against China in its territorial disputes.
In accusing China of playing unfair, the above writer also complains how China does not sport a democratic government and is beginning to command respect from an ever increasing number of nations. I don’t get it: so must China be a liberal democracy to play fair now? Must China not be so popular to play fair?
This xenophobia of China must stop. Consider the most recent WTO investigation by the U.S. into Chinese “illegal subsidy” in promoting the green tech industry.
One of the most important results of Copenhagen is that nations agreed to devote significant resources to develop green technologies to curb carbon growth. Thus the U.S. itself has offered tax incentives, credits, grants, special regulatory treatments to promote its own green industries. So have E.U. powers – to their credit – done their part in promoting industries in Europe.
Yet when China does the same – and ends up leading the world in mobilizing industries to develop low-price, practical green technologies (the proof of China’s success can be seen in the charts James Fallows provided) – what do you get? Yes, the U.S. cries foul. Instead of receiving kudos, instead of being recognized as a RESPONSIBLE GREEN LEADER, China gets slapped with another label of playing unfair.
Thus the game seems to be to damn China if it does and damn China if it doesn’t. As the writer above noted: if China did not appreciate the Yuan, it would be accused of gaining an unfair export advantage. But if China did continue to appreciate the Yuan, it would probably soon be accused of gaining an unfair buyer’s advantage.
More than ever, I believe the idea of an irresponsible China is born out of Western fear and insecurity. For the sake of global peace, prosperity, and development, people in the West must rise above their own insecurity and see opportunities where they exist … instead of ghosts where they don’t.