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Be Unashamedly Wary of China’s Rise

4:08 PM, Apr 3, 2012 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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Jane Perlez’s and William Wan’s articles in today’s papers (the New York Times and Washington Post, respectively) stand as a minor but important milestone in elite understanding of international relations in the 21st century. Though they provide only a summary of a Brookings monograph – the product of a joint effort with the International Institute for Strategic Studies at Peking University – it’s headlined in breaking news fashion: “Chinese Insider Offers Rare Glimpse of U.S.-China Frictions,” the New York Times tops Perlez’s piece. 

Photo of Chinese Flag with surgical stitches in it

GARY LOCKE

The Chinese in question, Wang Jisi, most definitely qualifies as an insider in the Communist Party, People’s Liberation Army, and the Chinese foreign ministry. And his contribution to the study is indeed a varnish-stripped assessment of how the Chinese leaders view the United States. To the big men in Beijing, we’re no longer “that awesome.”

That would come as no surprise to anyone who’s actually been paying attention to the course of things over the last 20 years, but the American political establishment has excelled at ignoring unpleasant facts about China for a lot longer. Glimpses into attitudes among Chinese leaders aren’t really all that rare; the Defense Department, to take but one example of many, has been doing annual assessments of Chinese strategy since the mid-1990s. Indeed, the China-watching industry has been growing almost as fast and as long as the Chinese economy.

So the real news story remains the American response to China’s rise; the cardinal aspect of the Brookings study is the part written by Brookings scholar Kenneth Lieberthal, a former National Security Council official and one of the most influential China-watchers of the past several decades. Lieberthal’s views have long been and remain a reliable indicator of received, center-of-mass opinion on China.

In this context, it should be no further surprise that the title of the study is, “Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust.” At least the point of departure for establishment discussion of China now allows that the Chinese think of the “relationship” in traditional power-politics terms, “very much a zero-sum” game, as Lieberthal admits. At least Washington understands there’s a problem.

And it’s an even bigger sign of progress that the nature of the problem is defined as essentially military and strategic. Lieberthal concedes, “China’s military is investing heavily in developing force projection capabilities in the Western Pacific with a likely view toward enhancing itsglobal reach in coming decades.” China-watchers (and, to be fair, American military leaders) have long pooh-poohed the PLA’s modernization efforts, and even now discount the level of competence of Chinese commanders and units. And Lieberthal’s accurate but anodyne summary misses the central strategic point: China’s buildup is a challenge to U.S. military power in the region, to our allies and others, and, indeed, to the international security architecture—a Pacific challenge is in fact a global challenge.

But if the American China-watching community now accepts the facts, they remain at sea about a strategic or military response, and fundamentally unwilling to alter their traditional policy prescriptions. Lieberthal’s chapter in the study is less about developing American attitudes about China’s rise than about how Americans fail to appreciate where the Chinese are coming from. Thus the responses, in the concluding “Building Strategic Trust” section of the study, are a compendium of recycled ideas for better structures, ranging confidence-building military measures to economic measures to “minilateral dialogues” (a new and seemingly cool term, if not a new idea).

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