Is China paranoid (again)?

Dan Drezner has picked up on Wang Jisi and Kenneth Lieberthal’s new report on US-China strategic distrust, and worries that Wang’s descriptions of Chinese thinking about US efforts at undermining it verges on the paranoid.

My problem with the report is that it to presents an oddly cohesive picture of foreign policy ideas among China’s elites. Such a consensus isn’t impossible, but does stand starkly at odds with other recent assessments that offer a more diverse picture (by “outsiders” like David Shambaugh, Daniel Lynch, Kissinger, and Aaron Friedberg but also by other influential insiders such as Hu Angang). These other pictures of competing ideas about foreign affairs are not only reasonably documented, but also seem immediately more plausible if one looks at the considerable internal divisions (if not open debate) on other issue areas such as financial liberalization, political reform, and the right path to economic rebalancing (i.e., China’s leadership is much less certain about what exactly constitutes the China model than policy wonks seem to think).

Mistrust of the US really is pervasive and embedded in a national narrative that resonates with most Chinese, and with good reason – both historical and rhetorical, with several US scholars, pundits and officials talking openly of the need to contain China (although these calls haven’t been heeded in any serious way). And it is to be expected that China’s misgivings about the US and readiness to act on them would be exacerbated by the perceived narrowing of the power gap between the two countries (even if the actual gap is still pretty big).

However, I’d contend that after a couple of years of overreaching and succumbing to too-familiar “myths of empire” (“states will bandwagon with us”, “the US is a paper tiger and its decline is inevitable”, “we’re being unjustly targeted”, and so on), China’s leadership has learned from the backlash and successfully retrenched into a less agressive stance (Taylor Fravel has a nice piece about this at FA this week). Contra Wang, this speaks to the existence of another set of ideas beside fear of US sabotage and, specifically, to the resilience of the strategic concept introduced by Deng Xiaoping, whose main purpose is to avoid provoking balancing behavior in the region and unwanted attention from the US. Much like Gorbachev’s new thinking, Deng’s admonishments for keeping a low profile and Hu’s “peaceful rise/development” are predicated on the realization that their own behavior might be seen as threatening by others and thus contribute to their strategic predicaments (Booth and Wheeler have termed this self-awareness “security dilemma sensibility”).

This ability to retrench in the face of a countervailing coalition, however, might not hold for long. As Jack Snyder has argued, this type of strategic learning and course correction is much easier in established democracies and centralized political systems, and hindered in cartelized polities, where special interest groups have a bigger influence on policy-making. Nowadays special interest groups, powerful bureaucracies and factional disputes might play a more conspicuous role in the making of Chinese foreign policy than they did a decade ago, but core leadership cohesion and their ability to dictate policy – especially when dealing with high-priority issues – is still much closer to Snyder’s unitary model than his cartelized model. But the trend is worrying indeed. The worst-case scenario is not an emboldened Chinese leadership that agrees on its distrust of the US and its willingness to promote a “Beijing Consensus” abroad, but the prospect of the breakdown of elite cohesion within China, the increased cartelization of Chinese politics and economic activity and the space this opens for expansionist log-rolling coalitions and hyper-nationalism. The big problem here, is that this outcome could come about not only a result of political crisis stemming from economic hardship, but also from pressures generated by the growing inequality that is fruit of continued economic “success”. The best way to avoid this sort of outcome, as Mansfield and Snyder have cogently argued, is a well-engineered “democratization from above”, where political rights are devolved gradually after institutions have been put in place to control violent nationalism. What we have seen in the past 4 years, however, is the exact opposite: an increasingly insecure and repressive Communist Party and stagnation – if not reversal – in political reforms at the central level.

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