When Chinese President Hu Jintao visits Washington this week, there will be lots of ruffles and flourishes. Both governments will refer to the “positive, cooperative and comprehensive” relationship they seek to build. There is nothing wrong with positive diplomacy, but President Obama should not shy away from highlighting an area where the United States and China sharply diverge: political values. This is not just a matter of managing U.S. domestic politics but also an issue of long-term strategy as China rises.
The international system has experienced comparable surges of national power in the past 150 years. As Japan and Germany rose in the early 20th century, these states lacked the rule of law and transparent governance that offered other states multiple avenues for reassurance and shaping of strategic behavior. The result was rivalry and, eventually, war. The United States, by contrast, rose to power peacefully; even as America displaced Britain, the British and others enjoyed access and influence in its open political system. Democratic governance in postwar Japan ensured that its rise during the 1980s created limited tension with the United States and not serious conflict.
Beijing accuses those who raise political values of a “Cold War mentality” and interference in internal affairs. Yet it is Chinese leaders above all who need to understand that economic interdependence and pledges of “peaceful development” have done little to assuage anxiety about Beijing’s strategic trajectory. Recent opinion surveys in Japan and South Korea show significant increases in respondents identifying China as a potential threat; 88 percent of Japanese share this view, according to some polls. Similar reactions to Beijing’s assertiveness are evident across South and Southeast Asia even as those countries’ trade dependency on China grows. The anxiety is less about Chinese power, which the region understands, than uncertainties regarding Chinese intentions. For all of Beijing’s “strategic partnerships” and engagement with Asia and the United States, few experts confidently explain how Beijing came to its decisions to confront Japan over control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, or Southeast Asia over the South China Sea. Nor are they certain of what China will do in the future.
The international community wagered in the 1970s that engagement of China would gradually change China before Chinese power changed the international system. Undoubtedly, engagement has reinforced regional and global stability; Chinese modernization transformed living conditions for its people and generated wealth around the world. But Chinese political liberalization has made only modest gains, and even those must be set against Beijing’s intolerance toward dissent at home and abroad; China has tried to use economic pressure to sideline attention to Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo, the Dalai Lama and other voices for pluralism.
The United States cannot make China a democracy. And sudden political liberalization without the underpinnings provided by the rule of law and good governance would only increase the risks of illiberal democracy and cause even greater uncertainty about China’s strategic trajectory. In any event, this generation of Chinese leaders is unlikely to introduce political reforms that would jeopardize the Communist Party’s singular hold on power. But Washington and Beijing must recognize that economic interdependence and statements of strategic reassurance are no substitutes for evidence of greater transparency and liberalism within China. This message should be delivered clearly by the White House and the State Department, with consistent demonstrations of support for human rights, media freedom, the rule of law and civil society in China.
In Asia’s burgeoning milieu of regional institutions and informal networks, the United States should work with other like-minded democracies to stress that meaningful confidence-building depends on transparency and participatory government with neighboring states, not on Beijing’s outdated principle of “non-interference in internal affairs.” The case must be made in the region that stronger institutions and citizen participation will ultimately create stronger states; the democratic transitions of South Korea and Indonesia are key examples.
In the short term, this approach could exacerbate tensions between the United States and China. But those tensions will ease if Washington remains consistent about its expectations of Chinese leaders and works with states that share our concerns and an interest in positive relations with Beijing. Much is risked by continuing to assume that economic integration and diplomatic engagement will ensure a peaceful rise. History shows that regime type matters. Ignoring this paves the way for the United States and China to evolve into strategic competitors.
Michael J. Green, a senior adviser and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an associate professor at Georgetown University and Daniel M. Kliman, a visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security who is writing a book on rising powers.