Skip Navigation

A Partnership of Paranoia

Is economic reform of the Communist system in China enough?

Annie Hsiao Email AnnieHsiao

 With the emergence of Deng Xiao Ping into the forefront of the Chinese Communist Party, the regime has incrementally loosened its authoritarian and centralized control of the economy. Propelled by DXP’s economic ideology of “it doesn’t matter what color the cat is, as long as the cat catches the mouse,” the communist regime set up Special Economic Zones, opening up to Western countries to come and invest capital in local factories. Since the 1960s, the Chinese state’s economic liberalization and openness to the West has ushered in much socio-economic and political progress. Economic reform has influenced political conformity to international standards of cooperation. But economic reform is still just what it is, economic. And although it may influence other domestic and international stratums of culture, politics, and class, it is not the determinative factor that defines the Chinese Communist state. A dissection of the status quo and revisionist interpretations of China’s recent and historical actions in the international and domestic arenas will reveal that while China’s economic liberalization has meant increasing normalization with the West, it does not compensate for the fundamental structural and sociological discrepancy. Although the United States currently has a cooperative relationship of mutuality, on issues of increasing economic prowess, compliance with international norms, political ideology, and regional aggression, the gap between the U.S. and the Chinese Communist regime is still too wide to be permanently bridged by economic reform alone.
 The view that perceives China as a status quo state subscribes to the theory that economic reform and globalization will influence international cooperation by facilitating social, cultural and political conformity with the West. Evidence of the increasing institutional cooperation can be observed in the state’s economic decentralization, diplomatic normalization, military inferiority, and the conciliatory relationship with the US since 9/11. Many scholars optimistically project that economic incentives will lead to greater strategic cooperation with the US. Economic reform and liberalization are predicted to trickle down to influence the political disposition of the regime and be a means of more cooperative diplomacy with the US. The progress made in liberalizing economic ideology and decentralizing the market and opening up to the western world has definitively affected the free trade in China. The tariff rate has decreased dramatically, facilitating more open trade, making China the single largest recipient of foreign capital in the developing world.  The tariff rate has decreased from 40% in 1992, to 20% in 1997.
The economic and status incentives based purely on strategic terms, make a compelling case for the Chinese regime to embrace the international norms of a market economy. Alastair Johnston attributes China’s embrace of economic marketization as an indication of their desire to expand economically by writing, “Chinese leaders realize that this economic growth – hence their legitimacy – comes from integration into the global capitalist institutions, not isolation from them…”  Johnston adds, that China is not a threat to the current international order because under this system, “China can ensure its own national interests.” 
 This economic trend has influenced administrative decentralization in the creation of a legal framework to protect commercial transactions and enhance China’s performance in international competitiveness.  Commenting on China’s increasing involvement in the economic system of accountability, Richard Baum and Alexei Shevchenko write, “rapid economic development and technological modernization would require large infusions of foreign capital similarly meant that Chinese leaders would need to pay greater attention to foreign concerns.”  China’s increasing necessity of foreign capital investment implies an increasing responsibility to pay attention to foreign affairs.
 China’s open economic policy has seen more compliance with international rules of protocol and participation in international clubs which shows a disposition to cooperate in the long run. Although viewed as irrationally irresponsible in the past, the current public image of China is that of a more gentle, conciliatory state that desires to be seen as a “good citizen”. Initial admission into the World Trade Organization acutely displays the compliance that the Chinese state is willing to offer for economic gain. Motivated by a desire to gain the advantageous tariff and status benefits of a WTO club membership, China completely transformed its administrative and legal infrastructure. In November of 1999, after it conceded to a series of unprecedented market-opening agreements with the US, China was given WTO membership.  China has shown a readily eager desire to increase its openness to the West in exchange for more economic and social modernization. Although China has been guilty of cheating on some WTO rules and regulations, it does not overtly cheat in a manner that is different from the way the rest of the WTO countries tend to cheat. It is also not a standardized cheating that comes from the central government but rather happens on the local level from smaller organizations that are responding to international competitive pressure.  Thus economic incentives have led to increasing diplomatic normalization in standard ethical procedure in international cooperation. 
 China’s economic dependence and military inferiority make diplomatic aggression unlikely. China’s military and economic inability to compete with the prowess of the US makes it virtually inconceivable for them to close in on the United States’ technological advantage to be a realistic and formidable threat. Thomas J. Christensen describes the relative inability of Chinese military technology to compare to the US’ superiority by writing, “China does not appear poised to become a peer competitor of the United States. If it were to do so, China’s economic growth and increasing technological sophistication must allow China to close the gap with the American military, (and) create power projection capabilities that would threaten the American position in East Asia.”  But China’s inability to prove military and economic equality with the US verifies the lack of military threat and rivalry. Christensen also adds that China has the potential to accelerate its progress, but its backwardness in military modernization, its own institutional and bureaucratic obstacles, and its dependence on outsourcing for defense technologies makes this an unlikely development.  It seems more likely that the international strategy for the next twenty to thirty years is to develop the ability to become a regional peer competitor.  China’s military power is limited and thus is paralyzed in its ability to project military force making it an unlikely state for militaristic aggression against the U.S. The Chinese military only has about twenty, outdated ICBM’s as opposed to the US’s thousands. Experts say that they are least 20 years behind the US in technology.  In the 2000 White Paper on National Defense, made by PLA strategists, Chinese analysts concluded that China could not realistically think of replacing the US as the regional hegemon.  China’s inability to fend for itself militarily shows a lack of physical evidence of China’s attempt to balance the power struggle against the US making it an unlikely rival.
 In addition to the economic interaction that China and the US has forged with the open market policy, political cooperation has emerged largely as a result of post-9/11 circumstances of alignment along issues of anti-terrorism. Before the 1980s, Sino-US relations were interdependent because of the united front that they posed against the mutual threat of the Soviet Union. But after the dissolution of the USSR, China did not need to rely on the US’ protection from the Soviet power anymore. Only recently has China’s marriage of convenience with the US been renewed by unprecedented cooperation, that is based largely on strategic interests aligned on the issues of anti-terrorism. Radical, Islamic terrorists along the borders of Tibet and Northern China have become a significant issue for the regime that detests insubordinate behavior. China has been growing weary of radical Islam threatening the stability of the state. And with the Bush administration needing as much international support for its plight against terrorist groups, it has reconciled differences and embraced the Chinese alliance in the war against terrorism. On the unpredictable threat of North Korea, China has also acted as the liaison to bring them to the negotiating table with the US by using oil as an economic leverage. Thus showing that US cooperation with China is a current trend that is both mutual and beneficial. 9/11 provided an opportunity to show the US that on the issues that matter, China is a reliable and dependable ally not a competitive rival. 
 While economic liberalization, diplomatic normalization, military inferiority and the current conciliatory relationship with the US, are trajectory observations of Chinese cooperation with the US, they are merely speculative and based largely on short term assumptions, not long term analysis. The realist approach to assessing patterns of Chinese competition with the US determines that it’s increasing economic growth, noncompliance with international norms, domestic politics, and regional aggression reveal a Chinese regime that is emerging as a formidable threat. Economic reform has made China stronger and more economically sufficient. But as the state liberalizes economically, it still clings to the socialist ideology that influences its culture, politics and socio-economic stratums. Thus this institutional disjuncture will result in economic rivalry and threaten the US’ interests in Asia and elsewhere.
 The status quo argument overemphasizes the economy’s influence on international relations. But a revisionist approach takes a more comprehensive assessment that engages a discourse that examines the interactions between the economy and politics not just the effects of the economy. Economic normalization is different from political normalization. Although China is liberalizing economically, this does not mean that it is doing so for the purpose of free and open trade, as it results from a free and open society, but rather is motivated purely by an economic incentive of aggrandizement not democratization. There is no doubt that China is making economic strides to becoming a real world player. But this economic independence and growth is seen by revisionists as evidence of China’s imminent threat. A staple of traditional realist theory interprets expansive economic growth as having the potential to be converted into military aggression. Economic might implies military might, which makes China an increasing threat to the US. Whether China is democratic, or autocratic is not even that relevant to the situation anymore; because even if China did democratize and conform to international norms its increasing militaristic capability would be a threat.  Although China is currently behind the US in military technology, revisionists reprimand the status quo scholars that the US should stop trading with China since each dollar that they get goes to their military might. As of the late 1990s the Chinese military spending has been increasing and the state has been beefing up its own security measures. Thus the revisionist camp sees Chinese economic growth as a vehicle to militaristic threat.
 While China has seen unprecedented participation in international clubs and has conformed to many norms, it still does not accept many of the rules of the international community especially in regards to human rights. It seems almost irrational for China to be dissatisfied with international rules because the rules have been so beneficial to helping China achieve economic viability and legitimacy but as Johnston writes, “China has not demonstrated sufficiently that it will play by so-called international rules.”  Johnston also adds that a civilizing discourse on China reveals that it is not yet a truly civilized state because of its issues on human rights in political and civil liberties. Johnston writes, “liberal democracies and human rights nongovernmental organizations routinely and accurately point out the violation of human rights in China”. The Tiananmen Square massacre and even the recent crack down on religion show that China has only made marginal changes in their approach to human rights and is still an authoritarian dictatorship. A report on civil rights released by the US Congress showed that their approach to Christians, Tibetians and to dissidents has not changed much.   Another example of this monolithic, authoritarian system of censorship can be observed in the Chinese government’s response to S.A.R.S. The government not only denied the accurate number of cases they had, but also prevented the World Health Organization from going to Taiwan when the outbreak spread there. The Chinese Communist regime still violates common rules of protocol by allowing its ideologically, motivated authoritarian disposition to dictate its domestic actions. 
 China has recently prioritized working on their membership in the international community especially with the articulation of the “grand strategy”, but this participation has been nominal and superficial, not foundational. Chinese voting patterns in international clubs also reveal a divergence from US conformity, as Shevchenko and Baum found, “Chinese and American voting patterns in the United Nations reveal significant differences.”  They add a cautionary warning by writing, “such diverse patterns of coincidental voting suggest that great caution is needed in offering generalized interpretations of normative convergence.” 
 The incongruence of Chinese political ideology with democratic norms of the US, has set a precedent of short term and unpredictable international alliances in the formulation of “united fronts” and its socialist ideology. Post-9/11 relations of mutuality with the US can be attributed largely to advantageous short term gains, not long term cohesion on international diplomatic priorities. While uniting against radical, Islamic, terrorists is now binding the two states together, permanent cohesion between the US and China in the long run can not be guaranteed. Citing historical evidence of this diplomatic tendency, Baum and Shevchenko write, “when PRC leaders feel threatened, they tend to enter into ‘united fronts’ with erstwhile adversaries in order to enhance security against a common threat. When the threat diminishes the united front weakens.”  Just like it grew increasingly independent from the US after the Soviet Union dissolved, China has the potential to follow this same pattern of fickle diplomacy, where it will abandon unity when a common threat is no longer present. A security dilemma could easily lead to a redefinition of its singular interests.
 The question of Chinese political ideology is also a sociological and structural one. Is it even possible to socialize a dictatorial, nationalistic state? The nature of the regime reveals a discontented state that is looking to challenge the US’ uni-polar hegemonic status in the world.  Realists site historical examples comparing China’s rise to power with that of other revisionist states such as fascist Japan and Nazi Germany.  And given the historical precedent of a Sino-centric disposition in being the self-proclaimed “middle kingdom,” many scholars note the possibility of a return to a tribute system, where smaller states defer to China’s interests.  Noting the Chinese potential for threat, before she became the National Security Advisor, Condoleeza Rice stated that “china is not a ‘status quo’ power.”  Particularly in regards to China’s coercive diplomacy towards Taiwan the regional aggression seems to be becoming a more serious threat.
 The realist theory subscribes to the principle that rising powers are inevitably interested in challenging the power distribution of existing institutions. Alastair Johnston writes on China’s regional aggression, “China has a clear goal of establishing regional hegemony and will do so as its relative power increases.”  China is expanding and according to the “Theory of China Threat,” the growth has also seen a correlative pattern of assertive behavior as displayed in the 3rd Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1996 and in the South China Sea. The territorial threat of China on its neighbors over the strategically useless Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, reveal China’s aggressive disposition. The international community perceived its actions as aggressive and reconfirmed their suspicions of China emerging as the new bully in Asia.
 Evidence of revisionist tendencies is provided in the Chinese leadership’s goals in relation to Taiwan, which illustrates its propensity towards breaking the status quo in cross strait relations. While the US has taken a stance of supporting the status quo and the one china policy, the possibility of responding to Chinese aggression in cross-strait relations is still an eminent prospect. Alastair Johnston describes the military and political action being taken to respond to the Taiwanese situation by writing, “Military modernization programs, training exercises, and doctrinal innovation in the People’s Liberation Army, particularly since the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996 are aimed to a large degree at dealing with Taiwanese separation.”  And it would be naïve and irresponsible to perceive China’s lack of relative material strength, as a deterrent to challenging the interests of a stronger state, like the US. A weaker China could still challenge the United States, according to Thomas Christensen, based on four perceptions: a threat to Chinese national security and stability, US’ lack of military commitment in fighting, US military preoccupation elsewhere, and US’ separation from regional allies.  Chinese scholars use historical examples of the US’ half-hearted commitment to show how the more desperate attempts of weaker states could defeat the US. Historical examples of military engagement in Somalia and Vietnam give Chinese scholars ammunition to argue for how the US military is not inviolable. Chinese scholars perceive the US prioritization of human life as a weakness and liability against the US military interests. A National defense University Professor, Zhang Zhaozhong stated, “Americans give the impression that they are generous people who want to help when they see something unjust, but underneath this superficial image, they are in fact extremely selfish…Americans can never afford to take a beating… the US is unlikely to fight a large scale war for the sake of Taiwan.”  The perceived US military weakness and China’s increasing confidence in its own ability to defeat the US could lead to aggression in Cross Strait relations which would entail US military engagement.
 It is evident that China’s increasing economic prowess, noncompliance with international norms, political ideology and regional aggression show an increasing susceptibility to becoming a formidable US economic and political rival. But while complete exclusion of Chinese political diplomacy and economic exchange is realistically infeasible, absolute admission of the Chinese Communist regime is not permissible. On the spectrum of extreme engagers and isolators of Chinese interaction, the healthy medium would that of a partnership of paranoia. While the US cannot afford to isolate China from political and economic engagement, it must do so with much discernment and resolute shrewdness.

To print this page, select "Print" from the File menu of your browser.