Book Breakdown: The China Challenge

The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power (2015) – Thomas J. Christensen20170121_213501.jpg

ISBN: 978-0-393-35299-3

Categories: (China’s Rise) (U.S.-China Foreign Policy) (Diplomacy)

The U.S. should adopt “a strategy that accepts and even encourages China’s rise to greater power and prominence in international politics but shapes China’s choices so that it is … more likely to accept burdens as a responsible stakeholder in global governance” (311). “By cooperating with its neighbors and contributing to global governance, China will indeed be increasing its power, but in ways that serve rather than challenge U.S. national interests” (293).

The topic of China’s rise has been discussed by placating persons and doomsday pundits alike; none of their prognoses are realistic and each has their obvious motives for their dovish/hawkish positions. Reading the experiences of former a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs is refreshing to say the least.

The gist of his argument is that China has flourished under the current international order and affords it security and economic stability (116-7). Thus, China’s rise does not challenge the international order, rather China seeks to maintain a ‘conservative’ stance on future revisions like the UN’s “Right to Protect” doctrine. Additionally, China seeks to guard against anything that directly threatens, or seeks to establish precedents, that go against China’s self-proclaimed ‘core interests’: the CCP’s integrity, Chinese territorial unity/sovereignty, and economic/social stability (254). However, in circumstances when China does not play by the rules or prioritizes self-gain at the expense of other countries’ wellbeing (e.g. committing intellectual property theft, wanton pollution, currency manipulation, regional bullying over territory disputes, etc.) the U.S. needs to challenge China’s actions through proper coercive diplomatic strategies.

The author utilizes basic diplomatic principles to demonstrate how the U.S. should conduct its relations with China: couple proposed diplomatic solutions with strategic assurances and credible threats (289). This way, when the U.S. offers a solution to an international problem, it is neither misconstrued as a covert threat to China’s core interests, nor does the U.S. appear weak or lack a means to sanction China.

 

Other Critical Takeaways:

Refuting the notion that the U.S. seeks China’s containment (xiv-xv): It’s hard to pick a page because this whole book is dedicated to refuting the notion that the U.S. seeks to contain China. While the U.S. is not afraid to forcefully push back on China when China crosses the line, ultimately, the U.S. seeks to shape China’s choices to be more in line with our values.

The theory of Extrusion (38): A theory that China seeks to get the U.S. to leave the Asia-Pacific on its own accord, due to a fear of conflict or by intimidating U.S. regional allies into cutting security ties with the United States. While the author emphasizes that there is little evidence to support this theory, even a failed attempt by China to extrude the U.S. would provoke a military conflict.

China’s Foreign Direct Investment in Africa and South America is not a threat to the US (40): First, China is unable to project power into those regions. Second, Large FDI does not always give China (or even the U.S. for that matter) a strategic advantage in other countries, like Venezuela (78). In fact, infrastructure projects are more likely to produce political problems than solve them like in Zambia (79). Ultimately, China’s purpose is to diversify its oil investments and to maintain an image of being the champion of the developing world (74-5).

Transnational production chains prevent WWI-type annexations (42): Globalization makes WWI-type invasion scenarios unfeasible because of the inextricably intertwined nature of the contemporary economy is characterized by knowledge workers and service industries and transnational production chains require cooperation between countries. // I actually disagree with this, key countries that are resource-based economies like Tibet (precious minerals, Himalayan water source), Xinjiang (oil), or any other oil rich nation in Africa and the Middle East (take your pick) still face this problem.

China’s U.S. debt holdings is not a strategic advantage (69-70): (See the need for China’s to sterilize its currency first). China depends on U.S. debt to reduce unwanted inflation and keep its exports competitive abroad. The legitimacy of the Communist Party is dependent on the economy’s well-being, and in turn, everyday Chinese person’s perception that they are [economically] better off under CCP rule. In fact, Japan is currently (2017) the largest holder of U.S. debt, and even if China attempted to sell off all their debt, plenty of other countries would be willing to snatch it up.

China’s Nuclear Doctrine (102-5): China has a no first use policy, however it is willing to change this policy under “conditions of nuclear threat”. If China believes that its second-strike capabilities are at risk, even from conventional (non-nuclear) weapons, they are willing to make the first strike. Thus, nukes and China’s nuclear doctrine, are a strategic tool of leveling the military playing field vis-à-vis stronger opponents. It raises the stakes of a foreign countries’ decision to even fight a conventional war.

Environmental Pollution is our problem too (146): One-third of Chinese emissions were cause by export industries, many of which are owned by foreigners, and these products are all consumed by foreigners.

China’s pollution Catch-22 (149): Chinese leaders have more incentive to clean up fine particulate pollution (the smog we see in pictures), than the gas emissions that contribute to global warming. If China prevents the former while ignoring the latter, then global warming will actually intensify. This is because these low-altitude fine particles reflect part of the sun’s rays.

How China Sterilizes its currency (152-3): As foreign direct investment increases, the value of the RMB also increases. However, China as an export focused economy wants to keep its export prices low and competitive. Thus, China’s central banks “sterilizes” its currency by purchasing safe/low-risk global debt (especially U.S. debt), which removes freely circulating Chinese cash, and in turn, artificially reduces the value of the RMB. There are two consequences to this monetary strategy of artificially devaluing currency. First, the prices of imports become more expensive and second, the interest Chinese banks earn on foreign debt is less than the interest the central bank must pay out to Chinese citizens on the bonds the central bank simultaneously issued to dampen inflation. However, expensive foreign goods enable the development of similar domestic products do to their unviability (219). It also helps that China outright bans certain products to prevent foreign competition, especially in key sectors.

The historical trend of U.S. president’s reversal on acting “tough on China” (180): Since President Nixon, most U.S. presidents have campaigned on a “tough on China” platform, criticizing their running mates or previous presidents for being too soft. However, when faced with diplomatic, economic, and global security realities, presidents have time and again realized the need to cooperate with China on global issues usually outweighs staying true to their campaign rhetoric.

The problem with Obama’s terminology of a “Pivot to Asia” (248): The U.S. had never left the Asia-Pacific and was setting the stage during the George W. Bush years with the TPP (R.I.P.) and through military deployments. By calling it a rebalance or pivot to Asia, the rhetoric fell right into the hands of Chinese nationalists who cried “containment!”.

The U.S. president will always meet with the Dalai Lama (253): “Presidential visits with the Dalai Lama are a routine part of U.S. policy across administrations.” However, since the meeting is sure to always inflame bilateral tensions, the meetings are always strategically timed. Thus, the Chinese should come to expect this, and not see it as a sudden change of heart.

Never open negotiations by demanding a regime change (310): The U.S. will need to avoid beginning any multilateral negotiation process, of which China is a member, by demanding regime change in another country (e.g. in the case of a genocide). China believes that this will set a precedent for other countries to intervene in China’s domestic affairs under the guise of the “Right to Protect” doctrine, if/when China commits similar atrocities (like Tiananmen).

 

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