Waking the Dragon: Western handling of China

Integrating a rapidly developing China into the global political system was always going to be a challenge. China’s cultural assumptions led to conflict with the Western nations early in the modern period. In the late 18th century, when Lord Macartney led a trade mission to the Celestial Kingdom, he was commanded to kowtow before the Emperor: the Western version of the tale tells how he refused to kowtow before a non-Christian, but China’s own annals save national face by claiming that the kowtow was performed. Throughout the 19th century, China found it hard to adjust to the reality that the people they viewed as the “Western Barbarians” were more advanced and more powerful. Even today, the ruling Communist Party carefully nurtures the story of China’s humiliation at the hand of the Western powers. As a result, China comes across as an angry power at times, giving rise to valid questions about the impact that a resurgent China will have on the world as a whole, particularly later in the 21st century.

China’s tale of humiliation between 1840 (the Opium War) and 1949 (the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China) is dubious on various accounts. Firstly, a moral objection to Western colonialism ignores the question of why the Western powers were able to briefly humble the Chinese Empire in the first place. Compared with the landmass of China, Great Britain is but a small dot in the north of the Atlantic Ocean that would comfortably fit several times within some of China’s provinces. Moral considerations projected backwards over more than a century into the past to a time when all the great powers engaged in territorial rivalry—including the loser in this Great Game, China—are just an irrelevance. The real question that needs to be asked is why it was the Western powers and not China that made the modern world. In cultural terms, China was clearly not as great and accomplished as it still holds itself to be. The recognition of that fact has come very hard to China in modern times.

Secondly, if anything the Western powers have done to China really does amount to a century of humiliation, it pales into insignificance compared with China’s own actions in much more recent times. China’s occupation of non-Han territories such as Tibet and East Turkestan has been accompanied by a much more systematic attempt to extirpate the local culture, and even demographically dispossess the local peoples, than anything any nation could ever have attempted by the West in the case of China. The Chinese continue to bring up the Nanking Massacre when up to a quarter of million Chinese were killed by the Japanese—the numbers are disputed, and I do not doubt the willingness of the Chinese to overstate the numbers, just as the Japanese might be inclined to understate them—and like to highlight the use of a history textbook in Japan that glosses over the massacre. But the large numbers of Tibetan and other minority peoples killed, tortured and imprisoned in the modern period are not mentioned in China’s textbooks, and in any case nothing imperialists have done could compare with the 30m deaths in China’s self-inflicted Great Leap Forward.

Thirdly, China, so far from finding its ambitions constrained by the Western powers in the modern world, is permitted to occupy a uniquely privileged position in the global political system. Why does the People’s Republic of China wield a veto in the UN Security Council? Why is China permitted to insist on the diplomatic isolation of Taiwan? Which of the other developing countries has seen a global financial centre (Hong Kong) just land in its lap? The rise of China as the next global power seems to have been accepted by the West, which has invested frenetically to make this scenario come true. Chinese leaders are frequently told by their Western counterparts that this is going to be “China’s Century”, and so why should the Chinese themselves not believe it? There seems to be no substantive reason why China should be an aggrieved power in the modern day. On the contrary, there would be many reasons for China to feel satisfied and relaxed on account of its treatment at the hand of the Western powers today.

China’s essential problem is not that any foreign powers have held back China’s development at any point in history, or even that foreign powers are seeking to constrain China’s rise. Rather, China is resentful of the success of the Western countries. A century of humiliation remains a factor in China’s thinking precisely because China still erroneously believes itself to deserve the top slot in the global pecking order as of right. China’s tragedy is not that pesky Western barbarians harried its coasts a century ago and occupied some ports—China’s economic development would be less rapid today if Britain had not occupied Hong Kong and Japan had not occupied Taiwan—but that so little of China came under Western rule and was transformed by Western rule. China’s cultural assumptions remain intact because it alone of the developing powers was—contrary to the domestic propaganda retailed by the Communist Party—hardly touched by the hand of colonialism. China’s problems are entirely of its own making, from the Great Leap Forward through the Cultural Revolution to the corrupt and exploitative social structure of the modern day. No country has a “rightful” place in the world, and China’s own failure to innovate for centuries in succession means that its current position in the world as a poor, developing power is the one it deserves.

China’s current economic development is not simply the product of the ruling party’s farsightedness in embarking on economic reforms. China has benefited from a decision made by the Western powers to co-operate with China’s reforms, largely as a function of the West’s Cold War with the Soviet Union. In retrospect, the Cold War was an unnecessary foreign policy development that led to a series of decisions that have weakened the geopolitical position of the West today. China was brought in from the cold, given a position on the UN Security Council, and subsequently found that the Western willingness to invest, coupled with the role played by the Hong Kong and Taiwan economies, put it in pole position for a rapid rise as a great power. The experience of decades of fast economic growth has created a euphoric rush of blood to the head in China. China has emerged as an important global player, only confirming China’s deep convictions of its rightful place in the global order. In the late 19th century, China started to doubt itself, as witnessed by the top-level debate on the relative roles that Chinese learning and Western learning should play in national development. By contrast, all of China’s cultural assumptions of superiority are currently being confirmed and underlined in its contacts with the West.

China has managed to join the world on its own terms. it has gained leverage over the US through its purchases of US Treasuries—although one could argue the resulting interdependence will prevent China from exercising such leverage. China’s policies towards Taiwan were enforced during the Taiwanese presidency of Chen Shui-bian largely through putting pressure on the US to ensure that Mr Chen did not overstep any of China’s red lines with respect to Taiwanese independence. The US military commitment to Taiwan has therefore meant that the US government has emerged as a key enforcer of China’s geopolitical ambitions. China is a recipient of large inflows of concessional aid from the World Bank and other sources—but also maintains its own aid programme. Sums in excess of US$1bn have been extended by China to clients such as Cambodia and Angola. Sinologists in the West have largely “gone native”: multiculturalism has meant that Chinese language departments in Western universities are staffed with patsies for the rise of China. Many of these claim to be “experts” on Chinese culture, intoning that it is always better to show concern for China’s face in dealings with China, as confrontation is said to be counterproductive in Chinese culture. China is exporting people as fast as it can, and the recent reaction of the Chinese community in the US and elsewhere to international protests against China’s policies in Tibet shows that these communities are largely loyal to China—not their host countries. China refuses to take back its illegal immigrants to Western countries, on the grounds that if they have destroyed their identity papers their nationalities are unknown. Countries with relatively small populations such as Australia and New Zealand could conceivably end up with majority Chinese populations by the end of the 21st century, and politicians in those countries are scrambling to improve relations with China.

Let us take up the point that “it never works to put pressure on the Chinese”. It is undoubtedly true that the Chinese prefer to save face, and prefer to be flattered on the international stage. This is really all that the views of “experts” on China amount to. China puts a high premium on its “face”, and this can lead to infantile reactions by the Beijing government. When German chancellor, Angela Merkel, met the Dalai Lama, China responded by blocking German access to economic deals and contracts for months. Similarly, the conferring of the Congressional Gold Medal on the Dalai Lama was followed by China’s decision to turn away the US ship, the USS Kitty Hawk, from the port of Hong Kong, where it hoped to dock in time for Thanksgiving. Dealing with nations that hold issues of “face” in high priority can often seem like dealing with five-year-old children, and Western nations often choose to “rise above” such issues and ignore them. But it is worth asking whether the Western countries should always deal with China in the way it prefers to be treated. The theory that international relations can be fostered by nurturing soft power and maintaining extensive contacts with counterparts ignores the fact that these interactions are always underpinned by hard power considerations. While there is no reason to go out of our way to court poor relations with China, Western governments need to maintain their independence of action with relation to China (for example, by not becoming overindebted to a strategic competitor), and should treat China, not in a way that suits its cultural assumptions, but in a manner that is befitting to a developing country with a standard of living hardly one-tenth of that of the West.

It seems incontrovertible that Western policy towards China has been allowed to drift, possibly as a result of the focus on unnecessary side-issues such as the Iraq War, but the security situation in Iraq, Afghanistan and other failed states and Islamic militancy more generally do not represent the challenge to Western dominance of the globe that China does. A further problem is that whereas China is a united country, the European nations including North America and Australasia, are not, giving China the ability to play off the EU against the US, and play off individual EU powers against one another in the granting of favours. The EU itself is problematic in that, although it claims to unite European countries for the purpose of international negotiations, it also explicitly aims to confront US geopolitical power, and so necessarily divides the European-descended nations on the global stage. I would argue that, in the unlikely circumstance that European-populated nations could show a common front to the outside world with the aim of seeking to perpetuate European geopolitical power for as long as possible, key policies towards China would need to include the following.

  • Diplomatic and other relations with Taiwan should be restored by all Western nations immediately. As a matter of principle, it is unacceptable that any nation require all its diplomatic partners to shun a state the whole of which it claims as part of its territory. While claiming to oppose intervention in a country’s internal politics, China is in this way forcing every nation on earth to intervene on its side on the Taiwan issue. This does not mean that Chinese reunification should be opposed. Military and other guarantees by the US to Taiwan should be dropped. Ultimately, if China did launch military action against Taiwan, there would be little to gain for the West by intervening.
  • Western nations should leave the UN. As a permanent member of the Security Council, China wields a veto and a growing crowd of sycophantic Third World supporters, and the organization could well become a vehicle for Chinese geopolitical influence.
  • The reality that China holds Tibet and East Turkestan cannot be affected by Western grandstanding. We should withdraw from the game of pronouncing whether a territorial holding is “de jure” or “de facto”, and simply maintain relations with any regimes that hold their territory and appear likely to continue to do so. This way, China could not claim that Western nations had “agreed” that Tibet was part of China: we would simply not comment on the legitimacy of such things any more. Western leaders should not be afraid of inviting Tibetan and other such leaders to the West should they wish to do so, but should avoid giving encouragement to such groups, simply because the reality is that we have no interest in supporting their causes and they cannot therefore rely on us.
  • Chinese departments in Western universities should not be permitted to act as support groups for China’s emergence as a great power. There are a number of Chinese academics in the West who use their positions to argue points such as “Tibet has always been part of China” and “the West is seeking to limit China’s rise”. They should simply be required to adhere to tough academic standards instead of engaging in politics from their academic strongholds.
  • The human rights dialogue with China should be cancelled. While sympathising on an individual basis with victims of abuses, there is nothing we can do about them, and nothing that we should do about them, given that our foreign policy should be geared to our national interests.
  • China should be deleted from the list of countries eligible to receive concessional loans from the IMF, the World Bank or any bilateral or multilateral institutions.
  • We need to work out what level of investment in the economies of rival civilizations is appropriate. Natural resources investment needs to take place where the resources are. Arguably, we benefit from cheap imports of low-level manufactures (T-shirts and toys), but ought to draw the line as China’s exports move up the value chain. Higher-value manufactures should always be sourced from within the West.
  • Each Western nation should avoid becoming too dependent on imports from any one non-Western nation. Free trade and the World Trade Organization should be rethought.
  • Immigration from China and applications for naturalization from Chinese should be rejected as a matter of course, as China is a potential enemy power.
  • Chinese students should be ineligible for study grants or postgraduate study of any kind in Western universities. We are currently building up a rival power, and, to the extent that these individuals enter academe, traducing our own academic institutions.
  • While we can, and maybe should, do little to make China a democracy, it is worth considering what level of international interactions is appropriate with such a country. China should never have been given the 2008 Olympic Games.
  • The current Western hostility towards Russia, which is pushing Russia and China together, should be reversed. Russia is a European nation, and in any possible future conflict ought to be on our side.
  • We should avoid fatuous geopolitical games, such as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, that merely enable China to win brownie points for failing to cast vetoes at the UN. Co-operation with China in anti-terrorism, likely a cover for a crackdown on separatists in the West of China, should be halted. Confrontation with Iran and North Korea ultimately is not in the Western interest, and China should receive no credit for any diplomatic efforts it makes with those regimes.
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About djwebb2010

at the conservative end of the libertarian spectrum
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