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China Won’t Be a ‘Responsible Stakeholder’

John Lee

President Barack Obama, the world’s most powerful person, spent much of 2009 attempting to charm, accommodate and appease the world’s second-most powerful person—Chinese President Hu Jintao. In return, on issues ranging from the revaluation of the Chinese currency to North Korea, Iran, climate change and human rights, China ignored, rebuffed or even rebuked American requests and advances. Yet even if Republicans and many members of Congress are correct that being too soft on China is part of President Obama’s problem, the reverse—getting tougher—is not a complete solution.

As Mr. Obama heads into 2010 determined to prove that he has the mettle to complement his charm, he needs to solve a much deeper problem. The much lauded and still authoritative framework enunciated by former Deputy Secretary of State and current World Bank President Robert Zoellick to help China rise as a “responsible stakeholder” within the United States-led international system is failing. The success of America’s future China policy depends on Mr. Obama (or the person who replaces him in 2012) having the courage and creativity to construct a new approach.

Mr. Zoellick’s framework argues that the best way to “manage” the rise of China is to offer it a stake in the existing international system within which China benefits. China is thus encouraged to be a status quo power within a U.S.-led regional and global order. This is a clever advance from old-fashioned containment or appeasement strategies. But the limitations and weaknesses of the responsible stakeholder framework mean China will be less accommodating and more defiant as time passes.

First, Washington erroneously assumes it can shape Chinese goals and purposes. The “responsible framework” merely shapes the means by which Beijing conducts its foreign policy. Although encouraging China to be a responsible stakeholder is seen by the U.S. as the end-game and ultimate purpose of a constructive China policy, internal debates within China reveal that Beijing simply sees behaving as a responsible stakeholder as a transient strategy to bide its time while it builds what it terms Chinese “comprehensive national power.”

Second, the responsible stakeholder approach is designed to entrench China as a status quo power because it has been allowed to benefit from the current system. For example, China benefits enormously from the U.S. naval role in the South China Sea, which creates helpful conditions for trade and commerce to thrive by protecting trade routes. Yet while the U.S. devotes ships, men and money to these efforts, China benefits as a security free-rider in the region instead of a trusted contributor. China has not become an entrenched stakeholder within the U.S.-led region. Indeed, its disruptive claims to over four-fifths of the South China Sea have only intensified rather than faded as it continues to rise within the existing order.

Third, the approach assumes there is no alternative for emerging states but to compete within the existing open and liberal order. The responsible stakeholder framework does not account for the fact that rising participants—especially genuinely powerful ones—can seek to gradually dismantle and redesign the current order from within. Note Beijing’s attempts to create an alternative order in Central Asia and Africa. Already, subversion and “winning without fighting,” rather than confrontation and contest, is the preferred Chinese strategy for facing both the U.S. and the current regional order in Asia-Pacific.

Fourth, the responsible stakeholder framework also assumes that Chinese interests and ambitions are elastic and can be molded according to the circumstances of China’s rise. This argument ignores compelling historical and contemporary evidence that China is predisposed to seek leadership of Asia and to recast the regional order according to its preferences. After all, regaining its paramount place in the region is inextricable from reversing what Chinese history books describe as 150 years of humiliation at the hands of Western and Japanese powers.

Finally, encouraging China to be a responsible stakeholder places enormous faith in a strong liberal line of thinking. The argument is that as China becomes more integrated into the existing security, economic and diplomatic order, it will take bigger steps toward political reform and democratization. But the structure of China’s political economy means that its economic rise has disproportionately increased the wealth and resources of the state, enhancing Beijing’s capacity to resist domestic and external pressure for change.

The U.S.-China bilateral relationship is the most important one in the world. But the flaws in the relationship model constructed by Washington are becoming more apparent. The next generation of China’s leaders, due to assume power in 2012, are already talking about the next phase of an increasingly bipolar world. We should hope that the U.S. President who takes office 2013 will also be prepared.

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