Commentary / World

The real China challenge

by Brad Glosserman

China’s rise has transformed geopolitics. The simplest articulation of this new reality is found in the United States’ National Security Strategy, which argues that the world has entered “a new era of great power competition.” Significantly, that outlook drives thinking around the world, not just in Washington. The European Commission has declared China a “negotiating partner …economic competitor … and a systemic rival.” Japan has long struggled to find balance in its relations with Beijing; that effort continues.

As China has amassed economic wealth, it has embraced an activist agenda that maximizes its power and influence in the world. That should come as no surprise. China has acquired global interests and a responsible power would use all means — diplomatic and even military — to secure them.

China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, underwriting new multilateral institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the establishment of a military base in Djibouti and even the acquisition and development of aircraft carriers are all to be expected of a rising power.

In one sense, Chinese foreign policy under President Xi Jinping is revolutionary: He has rejected Deng Xiaoping’s guidance to “hide capacity, maintain a low profile and never claim leadership” in favor of a more activist and aggressive approach.

But a more accurate assessment would echo that of Evan Feigenbaum, a longtime China hand who served in the U.S. State Department under the administration of President George W. Bush. Feigenbaum — and he is not alone in this view — has long argued that China is a revisionist, not a revolutionary, power. Mao Zedong was a revolutionary. Today China is disruptive but its leaders don’t aim to overturn the existing order.

Feigenbaum’s distinction is important. China accepts most international institutions and systems, but not necessarily the norms that guide them. It has joined and seeks to operate within the prevailing order as a way to influence it. When Beijing cannot reorient institutions, it sets up new ones to create diplomatic space to advance its objectives.

China’s revisionism is one side of the “real China challenge.” The other side, and the question that will dominate China’s relations with the West (all countries that promote and sustain norms of the existing global order) is: To what degree will those countries accommodate China’s quest for revision?

Shuffling seats in the board room or giving Beijing directorships of a few international institutions is not enough. The norms, rules and institutions of global order were established and run by trans-Atlantic countries when they monopolized global wealth and power. That era has passed and China is leading the movement for change.

China objects to rules and principles formulated in its absence. The argument that China has benefitted from those norms is true, but irrelevant as far as decision-makers in Beijing are concerned. Their bottom line is a demand for different norms and principles to guide policy and their country is now in a position to assert itself forcefully to see those changes take place. And in a world in which notions of democracy matter (globally, not internally) change would follow.

Supporters of the status quo can argue about the meaning of democracy in the international system or hedge by asserting that such claims were always more rhetorical than real, but failure to find a meaningful compromise with the revisionists threatens change by means other than diplomacy.

Accommodation with China does not mean accepting all its demands. Reaching an acceptable agreement with Beijing requires compromise on both sides. The West must be firm on some issues, drawing lines to signal that change in these areas is impossible. On others, there must be a readiness to accept Chinese preferences and priorities. It is not clear now where that middle ground lies.

Change is inevitable, however, and the only question is whether it will be peaceful. At a minimum the West must be seen as attempting to work with China (and like-minded governments). It cannot be considered to be the cause of unrest and instability as that would alienate governments and publics that favor Western thinking while also acknowledging that the world has changed.

For Japan the challenge is especially acute. Tokyo’s ties to Beijing are the most intricate and complex in its diplomatic portfolio, eclipsing even those with the U.S. That doesn’t mean Japan-China ties are more important than Japan-U.S. relations. Rather, as a diplomatic challenge China is tougher than the U.S.

Moreover, Tokyo’s diplomacy toward China reflects its ties with Washington. A good relationship with the U.S. enables Japanese diplomacy toward China. A number of factors — demography and economics among them — are reorienting Japan’s relationship with Asia in general and China in particular.

It makes no strategic sense for Tokyo to antagonize or alienate a neighboring country that is 10 times its size, has a large and modernizing military (that possesses nuclear weapons), with which it has ongoing historical and territorial disputes, and that plays a central role in the destinies of other countries in the region. That does not mean abandoning principles but it does demand geopolitical realism.

At times, Tokyo has argued that it can be “a bridge” between China and the West. That claim has a certain appeal, but bridges get walked over. There is little sign that China, or the West for that matter, wants or seeks an intermediary.

Japan’s accommodation, however, must be part of a larger process that includes other countries. Tokyo must play a crucial role in that consensus-building process, first in the West and then with China. In so doing, it will shape the region and the world.

Brad Glosserman is deputy director and a visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University and a senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”