Condoleezza Rice will be going to China this month to mark the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Beijing and Washington. Instead of celebrating what has occurred these three decades, she should be assessing whether our China policies, formulated in the 1970s, still make sense.
First, we need some historical background. President Nixon went to Beijing in 1972 to enlist the Chinese in the global struggle against the Soviet Union. If there was time for a cynical bargain with a totalitarian state, it was at that moment, when it looked as if we were losing to the Kremlin. Yet, with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, the Soviet threat largely disappeared, and the Soviet Union was formally dissolved on Christmas Day 1991.
The end of the Cold War largely removed the reason for the engagement of China, but there was no reevaluation of policy. And for a time, there appeared to be no need for one as Beijing started to move in positive directions. Deng Xiaoping, who assumed power two years after the passing of Mao Zedong, had reoriented China’s foreign policy. No longer did Beijing try to export communist revolution. Deng wanted China to keep a low profile. With a few regrettable exceptions — like the failed 1979 invasion of Vietnam — Beijing adhered to the buzz phrase of the time: “seek cooperation and avoid confrontation.”
Cooperation and the avoidance of confrontation were, of course, necessary to permit Deng to start the rebuilding China, then devastated by Mao’s periodic episodes of lunacy — such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution — and scarred by his version of totalitarian economics, dominated by a central bureaucracy overseeing collectivized farms and managing state-owned enterprises. It is no coincidence that the 30th anniversary of the start of economic reform in China was celebrated in the middle of December and that the 30th anniversary of relations with America will be marked just a few weeks later.
Deng’s new approach to other nations survived his passing in 1997. Jiang Zemin, his hand-picked successor, generally adhered to the new outlook. Even though Jiang’s “big country” diplomacy sought recognition for China’s growing status, he saw his nation working with Washington and its allies in a Congress of Vienna-like context.
In that context, China prospered. The United States, for reasons both altruistic and selfish, tried to ease China’s transition away from Marxist economics and Maoist political institutions. The Chinese, of course, flourished in this benign environment, benefiting greatly from the American-led system in the past three decades. During this time, Beijing’s leaders reached out to other nations and multilateral institutions, and, as a result, the State Department now sees China as a “responsible stakeholder” in the international community.
But is it? Beijing’s leaders hope for a “multipolar” world, which means they want a global order where America is no longer preeminent. Americans can’t blame China for trying to increase its influence, but its effort to generally push them aside makes that nation a “strategic competitor.” Washington is full of analysts who say that the United States shouldn’t call China an enemy because that will make it one, but Beijing has by its own words branded itself an adversary. Although the challenge may be “discreet,” it is nonetheless real. Chinese diplomats try to maintain cordial relations with their Washington counterparts and cooperate when it is in their interests to do so, but People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s flagship publication, daily condemns America and tells it to step out of the way of its preferred international system. As China watcher Minxin Pei wrote recently, “China will now insist that its engagement with the international system proceed on its own terms.”
This change in thinking has had consequences. Under Hu Jintao, the current supremo, China has adopted an increasingly adversarial posture. In 2006, for example, the Chinese fired a laser to blind an American satellite, a direct attack on the United States. In October of that year, a Chinese submarine for the first time surfaced in the middle of an American carrier group, an obvious warning to the U.S. Navy to stay away from Asian waters. And during Hu Jintao’s tenure, China has stepped up cyber attacks against defense and civilian networks in the West and its allies.
So we are, unfortunately, dealing with a China that is moving past Deng’s policy of avoiding confrontation. The diminutive leader, we should remember, counseled Beijing to “bide time” until China became stronger. Now that China is stronger, the country is displaying a new side to its diplomacy, always assertive and sometimes hostile.
Perhaps the most ominous sign of Beijing’s hostility is that it sees China as the core of a grouping of authoritarian states, its first real step in creating a framework for a post-America world. And in the center of this strategy is its growing relationship with Russia.
The Dragon and the Bear are not natural allies. Even as fraternal communists they were often trading barbs and sometimes gunfire. Despite all this, natural forces are now drawing Beijing and Moscow together. Both of them are deeply suspicious of the West. They see themselves as rising powers. They want to reorder the international system. They share many friends. They identify the same adversary.
Neither China nor Russia is willing to directly challenge “the world’s sole superpower” now, but each believes we are faltering and is waiting for opportunities to pounce. They provide cover to each other and oppose our initiatives, and both of them never miss an opportunity to divide us from our allies. They collaborate to strengthen institutions that constrain our power and conspire to bedevil us from their permanent seats on the Security Council. They are, in short, counterbalancing us. Each has a ruthlessly pragmatic foreign policy and is playing for nothing more than its own advancement. They may no longer be “gambling for the world” as they once did, but both are willing to act disruptively. Each on its own may not be inherently threatening, but the combination of the two — the world’s most populous state and its largest nation — constitute an especially dangerous pair.
Thirty years ago we moved closer to Beijing to counter Moscow. Today, however, it is the two of them that are joining forces against us. China is moving in wrong directions, and now it’s time for us to change course.