Review of ‘Post-Western World’ in the New York Review of Books (NYRB)


The Chinese World Order
Andrew J. Nathan OCTOBER 12, 2017 ISSUE


Two other recent books, however, while approaching the subject in very different ways, suggest that China is not as threatening as many commentators would have us believe. Michael Auslin, a research fellow at the conservative Hoover Institute, declares the end of the Asian Century before it has much begun, because leading Asian countries, including China, have not adopted the business-friendly economic practices, pro-democracy political reforms, and cooperative regional institutions that would enable them effectively to rival the West. Oliver Stuenkel, a Brazilian academic more on the left, argues instead that the emergence of China and other Asian powers is an accomplished fact that cannot be reversed, but that the power shift does not present a serious threat to Western interests. Although both books discuss all of Asia, China is central to their arguments.

Auslin’s analysis is grounded in the contested set of ideas that used to be called the Washington Consensus—the belief that free markets, free trade, and political democracy are necessary for economies to grow and political systems to be stable. Since the Chinese approach disregards this theory, Auslin thinks the country will stumble before it seriously challenges American preeminence. He sees many problems in the Chinese economy, including the excessive number and size of state-owned enterprises, opaque corporate governance, huge government debt (200 percent of GDP by some estimates), a property bubble, and overdependence on exports. But this adds up simply to a description of how the economy is run, not to an argument that this way of running it will not work.

In fact, the Chinese economy is not as vulnerable as Auslin thinks. First, because the Chinese currency, the yuan, is not freely convertible, it is difficult for yuan holders to invest on a large scale anywhere but China without government permission. To be sure, there is a dribble of capital abroad sufficient to allow the purchase of high-end real estate in Vancouver, Los Angeles, and New York, but this is hardly enough to starve investment in China or subject the yuan to currency speculation. Second, just as the US dollar enjoys the “exorbitant privilege” of being accepted everywhere as a bearer of value even though it is not backed by any tangible asset, so too the Chinese yuan is accepted by participants in the Chinese economy and even to a limited extent overseas as a bearer of value, which gives the government the ability to print money at will in order to stimulate economic growth, with limited risk of inflation.

Third, both the debtors and the creditors in the Chinese economy are mostly government entities, so the government can adjust their debt relationships without causing a financial crisis. Beijing worked its way out of previous debt overhangs by creating “asset management companies” (or “bad banks”) to take bad loans off the books of state banks, and it worked. Such tactics can be used again if necessary.

Auslin is more persuasive in suggesting the extent to which high-level corruption has damaged the legitimacy of China’s one-party rule, and how ineffective the regime’s heavy-handed propaganda is in its aim of reinforcing that legitimacy. Even so, surveys show that the Chinese public gives the regime credit for sustained economic growth and for carrying out a serious battle against corruption. Auslin agrees with an unnamed China specialist—apparently the well-respected George Washington University scholar David Shambaugh—that the Chinese regime has entered its “endgame.”3 This may be true, but the same prediction has been made so often for decades that it is hard to be convinced by it now. By seeing the Chinese regime and other Asian political systems like Thailand, Myanmar, and Malaysia that haven’t developed Western-style governments as examples of “unfinished revolutions,” Auslin commits the fallacy of conflating political stability with democratization.

Unlike Auslin, Stuenkel does not believe that Chinese power will fade, but he sees China’s ambitions as more economic than military. It is true that China has built and fortified sand islands in the South China Sea, increased its allocation of troops to UN peacekeeping operations in Africa, established a small naval base in Djibouti, used Chinese naval forces to evacuate some 36,000 Chinese workers from Libya, and dispatched ships to participate in the multilateral anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden.

But in Stuenkel’s view, these efforts are not likely to lead to the creation of a US-style global military empire. It would be difficult for China to defend its far-flung, fragile network of economic interests by chiefly military power. China’s enormous investments in resources and infrastructure abroad can pay off only if peace is maintained across these turbulent regions by political means, including respect for international law. According to Stuenkel, China wants nothing more than to preserve the main elements of the world trading order from which it has benefited so much, while gaining greater influence in the institutions that enforce and develop this order.

Because the US Congress refused until recently to authorize increased voting rights for China in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund—and, one might add, because China accumulated a huge stock of foreign exchange that it needed to invest—Beijing set out to create what Stuenkel calls a “parallel order” of international economic institutions. He identifies twenty-two newly created multilateral institutions, ranging from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific, in which China is a participant and usually the leading member.

Stuenkel argues these are “parallel” rather than “alternative” institutions: they provide infrastructure investment, regulate trade, facilitate international payments, and carry out security and diplomatic dialogues in much the same way as similar Western-dominated institutions that they parallel. They operate according to rules that are consistent with existing institutions in the same fields, and their participants continue simultaneously as members of the older institutions. In Stuenkel’s view, their creation is a good thing:

[They] will provide additional platforms for cooperation (among both non-Western and between non-Western and Western powers), and spread the burden of contributing global public goods [such as UN peacekeeping operations, anti-piracy patrols, and the control of climate change] more evenly…. All these institutions will deepen China’s integration into the global economy, possibly reducing the risk of conflict, and lifting all boats.

Auslin and Stuenkel both present, to use James Mann’s phrase, “soothing scenarios”: either China’s rise will stall before it poses a serious threat to American interests, or it will bring new vitality to the existing international order. But both are too optimistic. Although China’s rate of growth has slowed from double digits to an official annual rate (which some economists think is exaggerated) of 6.7 percent in 2016, and will slow further as the economy matures, few believe it will fall below 3 percent in the foreseeable future.

As Stuenkel points out, at that rate it will inevitably overtake the US economy, even if the US were to accelerate its own rate of growth, simply because China’s population is four times as big as America’s. In a few more decades, China’s economy will be twice as big as that of the US. An economic or political crisis, if it occurs, can slow China’s rise, but China is not going back to the poverty of the pre-reform era.

Stuenkel is persuasive in arguing that Beijing cares chiefly about political stability at home and economic access abroad, and not about promoting its authoritarian political model to the rest of the world. Nor do China’s leaders seek, as some have suggested, to expel the United States from Asia, or to “rule the world.” They are, however, pursuing two goals that clash fundamentally with important American interests (leaving aside China’s abuse of the US–China economic relationship, which is a problem that can be gradually resolved through negotiations).

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