China’s Choice

As Number One, China To Face Hour Of Choice, by Richard Bush, YaleGlobal Online, June 30, 2011

Richard Bush, who is the director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, offers alarmists in the West some perspective about China and its seemingly inevitable rise to economic leadership in this well-worded article in YaleGlobal.

One fascinating point Bush makes is that China faces a choice with its economic might: either build for domestic prosperity and harmony, letting the US “bear the burden of international leadership,” or it may use its treasure to expand its global influence and power. It is a fascinating point, but I would wager most Chinese would reject the choice. The US has (until recently) enjoyed global power and domestic prosperity, as have Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands before it. Why, the thinking will go, must China choose? Can it not have both?

The greatest challenge the world faces with China’s rise is the sense of national entitlement that seems to suffuse popular sentiment, in particular among the young. Being the world’s largest economy should come with the trimmings, they think.

Some Chinese believe that passing this milestone will have automatic consequences for international politics, giving China more international influence. In their view, other countries should then confer more deference on China and accommodate to it on issues that China regards as important, rather than China continuing to accommodate them. At some point, Beijing will likely insist that the head of the International Monetary Fund or World Bank be a Chinese.

Whether practical or not, the people of China will want both prosperity and power, and unless the government begins a campaign to manage those expectations rather soon, the Party will find that it has made a mighty rod for its own back. The government will be expected to deliver on both global power and local prosperity.

That challenge will form the primary driving force behind China’s international relations, whether in defense, diplomacy, economic relations, or commerce and trade. A China so pressured from behind will not sit politely in its seat at the table of global power and learn which fork to use. It will have to insist that the rules created to manage a world led by an Atlantic civilization be changed to address a shift to a world dominated by Pacific powers, including the US.

Rather than panic, which Bush suggests is uncalled-for, the time has come for us to determine which aspects of our global systems of security, diplomacy, economy, and commerce are – for us – non-negotiable, and why. We should try to guide China’s hand at the global table much as Britain guided ours, but we should hold true to our principles and our non-negotiables.

China’s choice has been made for it. The real choice belongs to the West.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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