On his first visit to China late last year, Barack Obama stuck closely to the script mapped out by his predecessors George W Bush and Bill Clinton.
He asserted that America welcomed China’s growing wealth and power. Relations between the US and China were not, he insisted, a “zero-sum game”. America was comfortable with a rising China.
Stefan Halper, a senior research fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge and a former official in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations, is having none of it. He believes that the coming decades will see an increasingly overt competition between the two nations. China, he asserts, “poses the most serious challenge to the United States since the half-century cold war struggle with the Soviets”. What is more, Halper is not particularly optimistic about America’s chances in this new struggle. His book is subtitled “How China’s Authoritarian Model will Dominate the Twenty-First Century”.
Halper says he has been on a voyage of intellectual discovery. His initial intention was to “produce a book on the rise of the new consumer class [in China] and how the process was eating away at the power of the ruling party”. The notion that capitalism will eventually bring democracy to China has been a crucial part of the west’s approach to the country, ever since the opening of the Chinese economy in 1978. The collapse of communism in eastern Europe in 1989 strengthened the mainstream American belief in the onward march of economic and political liberalism, otherwise known as the “end of history”.
But Halper has come to doubt this optimistic thesis. He sees little sign that China is moving away from authoritarianism – or that it is paying an economic price for a failure to democratise. On the contrary, the Chinese economy has continued to power ever onwards. Halper argues that, as a result, the Chinese model of development, which he labels “market authoritarianism”, is gaining adherents all over the world. The “Washington consensus” is being replaced with a “Beijing consensus”.
Halper’s book is part of a growing genre attempting to analyse the implications of the rise of China. Over the past year Martin Jacques, a British academic and journalist, has published a book called When China Rules the World; Azar Gat, an Israeli academic, has heralded the rise of “authoritarian capitalism”; and Ian Bremmer, a New York-based strategic analyst, has written about the comeback of the state and predicted growing friction between the US and China.
It is to Halper’s credit, however, that he does not attempt to bolster his thesis by embracing every alarming argument about the potential rise in US-Chinese tensions. He is fairly relaxed about the implications of rising Chinese military spending, arguing that the US will remain the predominant military power for many years. Similarly, Halper does not expect a major trade war between the US and China that undermines globalisation. Nor does he seem particularly alarmed by the implications of the massive Chinese purchases of US government debt.
Instead, the true focus of the book is the growing power of China in the developing world. Halper attributes this primarily to two things. First, he believes that the western free-market model of development has lost credibility because of its failures in the developing world and because of the global financial crisis. Second, China has ready cash and a desire for raw material which makes it willing to lend money without strings attached. In countries such as Angola, Uzbekistan, Sudan, Burma and Zimbabwe, corrupt or authoritarian governments have found it easier to shrug off pressure from the west because China is willing to provide trade, aid and even moral support.
But it is not just the world’s bad guys who have found it convenient to strike a close relationship with China. Even some western favourites in Africa have found the Chinese way of doing business refreshing. Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan president, complains that: “The western ruling groups are conceited, full of themselves, ignorant of our conditions”; the Chinese, he believes, are much more business-like. In a similar vein, Senegal’s president, Abdoulaye Wade, asserts that: “China’s approach to our needs is simply better adapted than the slow and sometimes patronising post-colonial approach of European investors.” These remarks suggest that – as well as the financial and ideological reasons for China’s growing influence cited by Halper – the government in Beijing has skilfully capitalised on lingering resentment at the history of western colonialism and on China’s own status as a developing nation and a former victim of British imperialism.
The case Halper makes is powerful and is illustrated with telling examples. But I was left with some important doubts about his overall thesis. First, he may be over-emphasising the extent to which the US was ever able to force the pace of democratisation. The “Beijing consensus” makes the point that the authoritarian governments in Cambodia and Burma have found it much easier to resist US pressure because of the support provided by China in recent years. But both countries have been in the grip of authoritarian governments for decades – well before China came on the scene.
Halper may also dwell too much on the importance of the battle for influence in some of the poorest countries in the world. It is doubtless pleasant for many poor African and Asian nations to once again have a choice of sponsors – as in the good old days of the cold war. But it seems implausible that the fate of the world will hang on the battle for influence in Uzbekistan or the Central African Republic.
What may be more significant is how big emerging powers such as Brazil, India, Indonesia and South Africa position themselves, as the US and China struggle to mould the international agenda. All four countries are democracies and America has traditionally assumed that democratic countries will tend to side with the US. However, in various arenas, from the Copenhagen climate summit to the arguments about sanctions on Iran, countries such as Brazil, India and South Africa have found themselves closer to the Chinese position. That may be an even more worrying development for the US than the setbacks focused on by Stefan Halper.
– Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief foreign affairs columnist