Jeffrey LewisWhy China Won’t Engage

Washington is abuzz with flummery purporting to explain why the Chinese are so damned obdurate as of late.  (Ah, the inscrutable Chinese.)

For a representative, if credulous, account of this palaver, see Josh Rogin’s story, Has China Realized It Overplayed Its Foreign Policy Hand? Americans, it seems, are bewildered by China’s “increasingly aggressive and arrogant foreign policy.”  The only real debate in the Rogin story is whether the Chinese have caught on to what absolutely everyone in Georgetown figured out at least a week ago.  (So dreadfully behind, the Chinese.)

The possibility that something else might be going on — you know, the sort of thing that might interest a competent policymaker — is left for others to ponder.  Others, like Gregory Kulacki, who writes on the UCS blog All Things Nuclear, that his most recent trip to China’ reveals the importance of Beijing’s domestic dramas in shaping China’s recent foreign policy:

What I’ve discovered in my discussions in China is that the real reason for this lack of engagement is both simpler and more complex than [the debate in Washington].

There is a serious debate now taking place within the Standing Committee of the Politburo – China’s most powerful political body – about the nature of China’s security relationship with the United States. The nine-member Committee must come to a consensus on policies; China is no longer a state with a single powerful leader and a government that rubber-stamps his decisions.

There are currently two factions shaping the internal Chinese debate. One could be described as a “status quo” faction that does not seek major changes in the relationship with the United States. It sees the U.S. as a benign power supporting an international system that is conducive to continued Chinese economic, scientific, and cultural development – despite longstanding contentious, but manageable, disagreements on Taiwan, trade, and human rights.

The other faction, which is less cohesive but more bellicose, believes the United States feels threatened by China’s rapid development and that the U.S. is seeking to contain and constrain it in a variety of ways, including aggravating disputes between China and its neighbors and limiting Chinese access to resources, markets, and technology. These diffuse but potentially volatile anxieties are being employed by a variety of anti-status quo political personalities in the broader internal struggle over China’s future – and the future of the Chinese Communist Party – that is animating the upcoming transition to a new Chinese administration.

The split between these factions within the Committee has led to deadlock. Until the Committee comes to a decision, Chinese officials do not have a policy to guide engagement with the United States. So they are in a holding pattern that is reflected in their interactions with their U.S. counterparts.


  1. FSB (History)

    Indeed this is all very scary — The Chinese may well end up having as arrogant and bellicose a foreign policy as the US — can you imagine ? –and then we’ll really be in trouble.

  2. 3.1415 (History)

    The reported split in the Politburo is highly exaggerated. None of the nine gentlemen and their underlings can gain anything in disclosing a lack of unity, especially on such an important issue. If there is any apparent disharmony, it is a show for the Americans. It takes a long time and lots of “virtues” to climb up the career ladder in the CCP to reach the pinnacle. To think that anyone in the Politburo may have a dream about the United States is akin to think that any serious contender in American politics is a secret admirer of Noam Chomsky and may one day ponder the liquidation of the American Empire. To put it simply, China chooses it actions based on what United State does, not on what it says. The ball is still in the hands of the Americans; China is not yet strong enough to serve any hard ball. Whether the status is kept quo is decided in Washington. Beijing just wants more time and has no interest to substantially disturb the status quo as long as it fits. China has waited for over 170 years; another 30 years is not such a big deal for most Chinese when China’s historical trendline can already be seen. The People’s Republic is going to do a moon shot on its 61st birthday. For lots of Americans, it may seem silly that China wants to land someone on the moon by 2025. But China wants to become America and has to go through 1969 even if it is 2025. Time is no object in China. Verbs have no tense in Chinese. We do not intend to go away.

    • FSB (History)

      Not sure why a moon shot is perceived as a threat in the West.

      I really hope they do it. They have managed their economy well, have a scientifically literate polity, produce lots of things, and can translate between SI and English units successfully — good luck to them going to the moon.

  3. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    The real question centers around the nature of Chinese corruption. Having an economy based on a repressed middle class and fueled by a rigged currency, American capital investment, American consumerism, and American technology is one thing. To have a functional modern military that acts in sync with civil society and a more independent economy is another thing. For me the real question is what else did they import from America? My gut tells me that they have imported Enron style accounting practices and are headed for a great wall at full speed. All emerging great nations do this. It will hurt when they do.

    I think we are obsessed with the idea that America is losing it’s superpower status. It is. So we assume there will be another superpower. There need not be. We will probably go to a poly-polar world of several major and minor powers with no superpowers.

    As to the general pointer to the future of China. How do they view the world? Look to Africa. The Chinese understand the workings of a merchantile empire. What we have yet to see is how they will use their military to keep their infant imperial realm when the locals rebel. Stay tuned.

    • FSB (History)

      The real collision course is between America’s sense that we should be able to project power world-wide (superpower), and China’s emerging desire to project power in their back yard (regional superpower).

      The superpower will necessarily need to become less paranoiac and yield to emerging regional players (India, China, Brazil…). This will be a good thing, in line with the founding principles of the U S of A. Plus, we can’t afford our reckless ways, much as the tax-and-spend-on-defense republicans and Tea-Bag-Partiers would like to insist we can and should.

  4. A Complete Stranger (History)

    Andrew Tubbiolo’s last comment got me wondering about what we mean by a ‘Superpower.’ Its not (just) nuclear weapons since Russia essentially had as many nuclear weapons as the Soviet Union in the decade after it fell. It seems more likely that it is the combination of a sufficiently large conventional force, the will to use it to project political influence around the world (and by having the will to occasionally actually use it), and the economic might to afford to both project it and use it. The economic might has become more important in recent years as the cost of actually firing expensive conventional weapons as grown so enormous. (I also include the cost of training in this since so many countries have given up, for instance, continued training of their fighter pilots.) If you have all three, you are a superpower.
    I’m not a China expert but I would say that they only have the economic might and seem to lack the other two requirements: a military capable of projecting political pressure around the world (they seem to only concentrate on their region, either for defensive purposes or for a lack of interest in doing so) or the will to project it.

    As I say, Im not an expert on China so Im mainly throwing this out to see what the responses are.