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Why China Cannot Be Tamed

John Lee

In the recent Australian National University’s Morrison Lecture delivered in April, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd argued that ‘to understand what role China will, can and must play in shaping this world order, we need to understand China more deeply and engage with China at all levels.’ As Rudd alludes to, China is a place of enormous complexity and ambiguity, and is going through enormous change. After two decades of intense economic engagement with the West that occurred after the ‘Tiananmen Interlude’ period (1989-1992), China is no longer susceptible to easy generalization.

Yet, if there is a genuine contest of ideas about China’s future taking place between its economic and social elites, there is a remarkable consistency and consensus between its strategic and foreign policy elites. China has long viewed American preeminence in the region as a historical accident and an aberration. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) feels enormously uncomfortable existing in a regional order that is based on not just open trade, freedom of the seas and rule-of-law, but also on democratic community backed by American naval power and military alliances. Look through Chinese strategic documents over the past decade and around four-fifths are all about how best to bind, dilute, circumvent or supersede the foundations of American power and influence.

Rudd is correct that China has become a ‘major stakeholder’ in the regional and global system. But the broad approach by America and its partners in Asia has been to encourage China to be a ‘responsible stakeholder‘ as it rises—one that will increasingly uphold and strengthen the existing order rather than seek to challenge or subvert it. But the latter is precisely what Beijing is looking to do even as it has been a significant beneficiary of the current system.

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, troops 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. Subversion and “winning without fighting,” rather than confrontation and contest, is the prudent Chinese strategy for undermining both the U.S. and the strength of Washington’s security alliances and partnerships 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.

Economic engagement with China has worked. Besides enhancing Chinese and regional prosperity, it has arguably made the costs of overt conflict prohibitive for all sides.

But shaping Chinese tactics is one thing. Taming China in attempting to determine its destiny is another.

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