The Blog

BROKEN ENGAGEMENT

11:00 PM, Feb 23, 1997 • By AARON FRIEDBERG
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The link between democratization and peace is also not as simple or as direct as the transformers appear to believe. To the contrary, there are good historical reasons to fear that, as China's political processes become somewhat more open and its rulers are forced to compete more directly for mass approval and elite support, Chinese foreign policy could grow more, rather than less, assertive. This may already be happening. Public expressions of disapproval by student groups and military officers seem to have been one factor encouraging Beijing to take a harder line in its most recent confrontation with Japan over ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. It is a mistake to assume that a more pluralistic China (albeit one that is not yet a stable, established democracy) will necessarily be a more placid, contented power.


China's domestic transformation may take longer, and it may be more turbulent and less predictable in its course and consequences than the advocates of engagement are willing to acknowledge. The notion that China can be readily integrated into the existing international system should also be regarded with skepticism. It is condescending and ahistorical to assume that China wants nothing more than acceptance into "polite society" and a bigger share of the global economic pie. Nor is it obvious that high-level diplomatic dialogue will be sufficient to close the gap between the Chinese and American visions of a just and stable order. As in the past, the United States will remain committed to preventing any single power from dominating East Asia. But regional hegemony appears to be precisely what China's leaders have in mind. Not all differences can be split, or smoothed over with soothing talk.


The fact that engagement may eventually fail does not mean that it should be promptly abandoned. Adopting a more confrontational stance toward China at this point would be costly and potentially very risky. But the risks and costs are not all on one side. Continued dramatic economic growth, and virtually unlimited access to foreign technology, will permit China rapidly to increase its military capabilities. The balance of power in Asia will likely be far more favorable to China ten years from now than it is today, especially if, in the absence of any acknowledged threat, U.S. strength in the region is permitted to dwindle.


The avidity with which the United States appears to have embraced engagement, and its seeming reluctance to consider any alternative, could also have a number of unintended consequences. A willingness to be accommodating can easily be misinterpreted as weakness, thereby tempting aggression. The engagers worry that confrontation would delay reform and strengthen the hand of China's hardest hardliners, but, taken too far, their preferred policies could have precisely the same effect. Repeated assurances of our commitment to engagement, regardless of provocation, will lend credence to those in Beijing who argue that American pliability is a product of Chinese toughness. And our seeming indifference cannot help but be deeply demoralizing to those who genuinely favor reform.


An overly accommodating stance may also send the wrong signals to our present and potential allies in Asia. If the United States appears reluctant to stand up to China, smaller and weaker states will certainly not be eager to do so on their own, and they may begin to seek reinsurance by cutting separate diplomatic deals with the rising regional power. Beijing's ability to offer economic inducements (including access to its growing market and to lucrative government contracts) could also serve to make its neighbors more compliant. American planners may believe that they can rally a coalition to contain China when the need arises, but they could find this a difficult task if it ever does.


Current policy is also premised on the assumption that the United States will be able to modulate its own dealings with China, rewarding good behavior and punishing bad. This too could turn out to be harder in practice than it is in theory. The American policymaking process is an exceptionally open one.


Powerful corporations already have enormous stakes in China, and they will lobby hard to prevent actions that could harm their interests. Any move toward greater toughness would also be met with counter-pressures from Asian governments, which fear antagonizing China, and from overseas economic interests. (The fact that Chinese arms dealers can gain access to the White House suggests that Beijing, too, has a variety of ways of making its voice heard.)