Elizabeth Economy (of Council on Foreign Relations) made a list of topics for the upcoming Romney-Obama debate in hopes for a better American public discourse on China. With both of their campaigns almost competing to see who can be more harsh in criticizing China, Americans are polarized more than ever on this critical relationship, and Economy is right that there needs to be a more thoughtful conversation. While I applaud her efforts, I think her list still leaves a lot to be desired. For conflicts between the two countries to truly dissipate, the issues must be couched in terms both sides recognize. In this post, I offer alternative framing of the issues and explain why.
Elizabeth Economy’s List
My critique and alternative narrative
|China has a seat on the UN Security Council, the world’s second largest economy, and one of the world’s largest standing armies. Yet it remains reluctant to assume a leading role in addressing global challenges. How can the next U.S. President ensure that China works with the United States and does its fair share to meet the world’s most pressing global problems?||Let’s take a step back. Majority of the population on this planet thought NATO’s bombing of Libya was illegal. Americans should first recognize China not supportive of regime change or other U.S.-led geopolitical moves does not automatically mean China not wanting to “assume a leading role in addressing global challenges.”
Americans are not interested in China ‘leading’ per se, but they would probably acquiesce to China truly leading as long as in doing so brings Americans tangible benefits.
Let’s also look at world institutions such as the World Bank. Unless America let go and give countries like China a chance to preside over it, how is it China to lead it?
Consider the International Space Station where the U.S. habitually block efforts for China to participate, how can it be possible for China to assume leadership there?
China in fact has increasingly been playing a ‘leading’ role, though the American media never bother to offer such a narrative.
During the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, it was China not devaluing her currency which stemmed the complete collapse of other countries’ currencies in the region.
The African continent is finally growing because of trade with China. China is helping it build much needed infrastructure, schools, and hospitals.
China leads by example in pulling hundreds of millions of her people out of poverty.
So, I would phrase the issue differently as follows:
How can the next U.S. President ensure that China aligns better with the United States?
This is essentially what Economy wants to say and what Americans really want. At least it is honest and not so presumptive.
|China’s economy is widely anticipated to become the largest in the world—surpassing that of the United States—within the next five to ten years. What difference, if any, do you expect that will make in the U.S.-China bilateral relationship and in global economic relations?||Her narrative appeals to anxiety. Perhaps I am being nit-picky. A better way to frame the issue might be:
Being the largest economy, what sort of advantage does the United States enjoy over China? Will China wrestle those advantages away as her economy overtakes ours, and as President, what would you do to preserve them?
|In the past several months, a number of conflicts have flared up in the Asia Pacific between China and its neighbors. Some have blamed the U.S. pivot for emboldening actors in the region to take provocative actions. Mr. President, is this growing regional tension an outcome you anticipated or did you miscalculate? What further steps would you take to help decrease tensions? Governor Romney, you have asserted that the pivot was oversold and under-resourced. Please explain what you would do differently as president.||Remember though, conflicts between Japan and her neighbors have flared up too. Look at the on-going dispute with South Korea over Dokdo/Takeshima and with Russia on the Kuril Islands.
So, the way this question is framed paints China as the sole problem within the region. It is helping to further cement into the American psyche that the pivot is targeted at China only. Publicly, the Obama administration has said that is not the case.
A better way to ask would be:
Mr. President, what do you wish to accomplish with the pivot? What should the Americans expect, results wise, in 1, 5, and 10 years? Governor Romney, you have asserted that the pivot was oversold and under-resourced. What is your goal and are your expected results different from the president’s? What would you do differently?
|China has achieved extraordinary economic success with a one-party authoritarian system that continues to limit many of the basic human rights that we in the United States value and have fought for throughout the world. Does China present a credible alternative development model for other countries? Does this pose an existential threat to U.S. standing abroad?||First of all, Economy is likely ignorant about human rights. The United States or the West certainly do not have monopoly over the idea. When the idea is espoused, it is usually in the context of justifying the West’s geopolitics. I’d like to remind our readers a number of excellent articles on this topic featured on the right side of the blog. (See, for example, Oli‘s “On Human Rights, Intervention and the International Order.”)
I certainly hope both candidates say China’s alternative development model does not automatically pose “existential threat to U.S. standing abroad.” If America is so convinced her political system epitomizes the height of human civilization, then be confident in due time the world over will copy it.
In fact, “democratic” countries like India more often voted the same way as China (often in opposition to the United States) in the U.N. when it comes to “human rights” issues. So, what does that mean? “Human rights” in the name of politics is politics, and people outside the United States can see through them.
Chinese leaders have always said China is willing to consult with the United States on improving true human rights.
If America wants to be viewed more as a leader on the global stage, she must continue to work towards a more just and humane world. She should constructively lead our world in combating climate change and push forward renewable energy. If China does more of it in the course of her development, then she will naturally garner more respect. In turn, more countries will follow in her foot-steps.
Americans should ask themselves: if Germany in the coming generation becomes the new hegemonic power, would they consider the country an “existential threat to U.S. standing abroad?” Would U.S. response be?
The danger that confronts all of us humans in modern times is no different than the past: too many of us believe our religion is inherently ‘good’ while non-believers are automatically ‘evil.’ In the case of “democracy,” “human rights,” and “freedom” religions, the believer and non-believer camps are in fact mostly contrived. We are all believers and practitioners of them in varying degrees. The qualitative differences over them across societies has much more to do with history and unique local circumstances.
Instead, I would ask:
Does China present a credible alternative development model for other countries? If so, what new challenges will emerge for the United States? Would those challenges still exist if China evolves into a multi-party state?