by Paolo von Schirach —
WASHINGTON – “There are some who, for varying reasons, would appease Red China. They are blind to history’s clear lesson, for history teaches with unmistakable emphasis that appeasement but begets new and bloodier war. It points to no single instance where this end has justified that means, where appeasement has led to more than a sham peace. Like blackmail, it lays the basis for new and successively greater demands until, as in blackmail, violence becomes the only other alternative.” This excerpt is from General Douglas MacArthur’s Farewell Address to Congress, delivered on April 19, 1951. There is something eerily prescient regarding American and Western attitudes towards China in these words delivered so long ago by MacArthur. Benign interpretations about China’s goals, policies and the constructive role it would play after reconnecting with the broader international community, in large measure owing to US support, used to be dominant among China watchers.
Old China, new China
MacArthur was talking about the China he knew. Totally different from today’s China. He was looking at the China his troops fought against in a critical stage of the Korean War: a feisty and motivated enemy. That was a very poor and under resourced China. Yet its Communist leaders were determined to fight in order to assert their own national security priorities. MacArthur saw determination and the will to dominate in that China of so long ago. That assessment still applies today.
It is bizarre how MacArthur’s words of 1951 seem to be quite appropriate to describe the new China of 2023: a major country determined to assert itself. Of course, much happened since then. There have been epochal changes, within China and in Western attitudes towards it. There was the incredibly important Nixon-Kissinger opening to China of the 1970s –a true game changer. This was followed by the normalization of US-China relations which included Washington cutting off formal ties with Taiwan. And this was followed by the great economic reforms willed by Chinese supreme leader Deng Xiaoping. This economic opening to the world led to China becoming the giant, cheap workshop of the industrial countries. However, unfortunately, this economic opening allowed dreams to be created in the West.
According to most observers, China was embracing –in fact it had embraced– capitalism. We –America and the West– just needed to be a bit patient. Yes, China was still ruled by an authoritarian system of government. True. But undoubtedly Beijing had began a journey of radical change that would ultimately lead the Chinese to safely land on our side. Economic reforms, it was widely believed, would foster the growth of an urban, literate, middle class. In time, this new middle class would demand more freedom and an accountable form of government. And so, in time, Chinese Communist Party rule would progressively evolve into something like a multiparty democracy. Maybe not like ours, but far from the one party state of the post war Mao era.
No political change
But then came the Tiananmen Square massive pro-democracy demonstrations that began in April 1989 and ended in June, with a bloody military repression order by Deng. Yes, ordered by the very same Deng, the Great Reformer himself. That tragic episode was an important milestone. It clearly indicated to the Chinese people and the world the boundaries of China’s reforms. Alright for the Chinese people to engage in business deals at home and with the West. The Communist Party would allow private property and money making enterprises. But the Chinese Communist Party would never allow any challenge to its absolute power. Any form of open dissent or rebellion would be mercilessly crushed.
After the ritual condemnations and reproaches for all that bloodshed, having realized that the avenues of commerce had remained open, America and the West decided that outsourcing to autocratic, one party state China was good business. And therefore we doubled down.
The “Great Rejuvenation”
And now? Well now the picture is very different. After a thorough clean up job resulting in the elimination of any possible rival faction, President Xi Jinping is China’s absolute ruler. This development is the definitive sign that China is and will continue to be an autocracy. This by itself should not be an issue for the West, as long as we leave aside any silly ideas about fostering political change leading to pluralism in China.
The problem is that Xi, now China’s supreme leader, is openly pursuing old fashioned imperial dreams openly presented in countless political pronouncements declaring the need to implement policies leading to China’s “Great Rejuvenation”. This “Great Rejuvenation” goal indicates the dawning of a new historic phase for China that will see China finally reasserting itself as a Great World Power, no longer to be dictated upon by the “White Devils”, that is us, Western Nations –America always in the lead. The “Great Humiliation” of the past, an era in which a decadent and weak Imperial China had to suffer the iniquity of the Opium Wars, Unequal Treaties, territorial concessions and more, will finally and rightly be replaced by a new era featuring a mighty China. China under Xi’s command sees itself as a self-confident world power, militarily strong and economically unequaled on account of its ability to dominate innovation in the critical technologies of the future.
A better model
And there is more. This new, assertive China claims to be capable of offering to the world a better, more successful economic growth model, offering to the world its own recent history of fantastic economic growth as evidence of the superiority of Chinese economic policies . And here is the script, according to China’s leaders and scholars. As China continues its unstoppable rise, the capitalistic powers get deeper into the swamps of a rapid economic decline dictated by laws of historic necessity. The simple truth –according to Beijing– is that capitalism is an inferior model, destined to fail. And China’s leaders, supporters by legions of state-sponsored propagandists, explain to willing audiences how unguided, free market capitalism, combined with unruly and weak democratic forms of government, breeds disorder, anarchy, financial crises eventually bringing about their own demise. Very succinctly: “We are going up, they are going down. It is inevitable”.
There will be no war with China
That said, here is the “Big Question”. Does this China seek open confrontation with the US? Is all this assertiveness inevitably leading to armed conflict?
I really do not think so. The only contentious issue is Taiwan. Should China decide at some point to “resolve” the Taiwan issue via a military invasion, Washington may feel that it has to intervene militarily. And that would mean war with China. But, while posing a real problem, this possible crisis, is not imminent, nor inevitable; especially if Washington will do more of what it has been doing, namely help Taiwan’s efforts to build its own defenses as a deterrent against a Chinese invasion.
Leaving aside the complicated frictions caused by the sticky Taiwan issue, I do not believe that Beijing is preparing for war with America. With all its problems, the US still has a vast nuclear arsenal. “Victory” in a war with America that will inevitably turn nuclear is unthinkable today as it was during the long Cold War with the Soviet Union.
China’s “Long Game”
The more likely scenario is a “Long Game”, (see the book with this title by Rush Doshi) in which China uses and will continue to use its enormously vast hard power and soft power resources to undermine the West, while establishing itself as the preferred partner for many countries. China spends enormous resources with the goal of making friends with the non-aligned world. China promises and delivers infrastructure projects and good business, with no human rights, anti corruption or good governance strings attached. China routinely uses bribery and other inducements to steer these governments and their economies away from the West and into its orbit. For decades China has being pursuing these policies in its own Region, (think of Belt and Road), in Africa, and other developing countries, while America seemed asleep, or at the very least distracted. Even more worrisome, Chinese blandishments seem to work fairly well in at least some parts of Europe, theoretically home of free market capitalism and individual freedoms.
No magic bullet
So, what is to be done in America and the West? There is no instant solution. China’s threat is systemic and incremental. There are no quick fixes. No silver bullets. There is only one way to counter China.
America and the West must get better at their own game. For instance, these days Washington warns African governments. We say to them that China’s embrace will be damaging, saddling them with piles of debt that they are unable to repay. Yes, all this is true. But warnings are not enough.
What are we offering? What is the US-Europe alternative that will beat China’s proposals on its merit, because it is manifestly better? It has been noted that Chinese firms have built more roads in Africa in a few decades than the sum total of all roads built by the European Colonial Powers in a century. These are facts.
It is up to us to prove that we can do more, and on better terms via fair and open partnerships with African counterparts. Warnings about China’s danger, while useful, are simply not enough. America has to engage –big time. And in order to be engaged, America needs to be strong and self-confident. We need to invest at home, in our own education system, in our own R & D efforts. We need to put our fiscal house in order. We need to fix immigration, and a lot more.
The Sputnik crisis
Back in 1957, America had the “Sputnik Moment”. All of a sudden, after we saw with dismay that the Soviets were capable of launching satellites into space, we came to believe that the USSR was going to overtake us in science and technology. And this scare prodded Washington to sound the alarm. This was followed by spending new resources with the goal of pushing forward programs aimed at increasing the quantity and quality of research and innovation produced in our universities and technology center. The US government wanted US kids to study science, so that we could regain our primacy.
From reactive to proactive
I do not see a Sputnik crisis equivalent in order to wake up America so that it will mobilize resources in order to meet the Chinese challenge. China’s progress and outreach to the world have been and are incremental, not sudden. And this makes it much more difficult for us to deal with this threat. Sadly, US policy makers get busy only in reaction to “something”: an event, a crisis, an attack, a war. We are not very good at creating our own “Long Game”.
And yet we must develop this skill. We must invest at home and abroad. Our diplomacy, especially our public diplomacy, has to be strengthened. Our outreach to the world has to be massively augmented. This is the country that practically invented and refined modern advertising. And yet we seem unable to convincingly advertise the superiority of free societies and free markets. Societies founded on individual freedom and equitable rules, universally applied. This is us.
Engage with the world
We do not need hype or lies to make this point. We just need to be better at practicing what we preach and better at engaging with the rest of the world, showing everyone that there is much to be gained by being friends and doing business with us –the friends of freedom and democracy. If we do all this, we shall prevail; because freedom and markets beat autocracy.
Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.