U.S. policymakers have struggled to come up with the right way to handle China as it grows into a superpower. Before they fasten on a specific approach, they should tune in to the debates raging among China’s elite about its foreign policy, writes David Shambaugh, a political scientist at George Washington University.
The questions before the Chinese are fundamental: Should China be active in global affairs or isolationist? Should it draw on its military and economic might to reach its objectives or should it use soft power—diplomacy and culture? How much should China continue to focus on its relations with the United States?
In the swirl of these discussions, “realists”—who place “a premium on building up a strong state that can navigate its own way in the world and resist outside pressures”—currently dominate. Realism has a long tradition in China, with academics, policy researchers, and members of the military among its influential adherents. Realists reject “concepts and policies of globalization, transnational challenges, and global governance” in favor of a narrowly self-interested foreign policy. Recent U.S. moves that are seen as hostile—such as the sale of a $6 billion arms package to Taiwan—and China’s humming economy have stoked realist sentiment.
China’s nativist school advocates an isolationist foreign policy, arguing that China should avoid virtually all forms of international collaboration. Nativists, found mostly in the ideological wing of the Communist Party, are severely critical of capitalism and the United States, and believe that reform has compromised China’s socialist integrity and autonomy. While nativists’ ranks are increasing, especially among Internet-savvy youth, they play second fiddle to the more pragmatic realists.
Taking a more conciliatory approach are those who value working with the West, particularly on matters that are in China’s strategic interest. Some argue that China needs to keep its eyes trained on the “major powers,” while Asianists contend that strengthening ties in China’s backyard should be the priority. Members of these schools largely hail from the country’s foreign-policy establishment. They have some influence, but it is muted in the aftermath of the recent financial crisis, which reinforced Chinese skepticism of global governance structures.
Should the United States respond to China’s current realist posture tit for tat? Shambaugh says no—that would risk a trade war. Though the realists and nativists hold the keys for now, China can still be persuaded to make important contributions on issues of global concern such as North Korea’s nuclear program. U.S. policymakers must be flexible. Glints of every school will come out in China’s “schizophrenic” foreign policy. The best course is to “push Beijing for more, and publicly expose its minimalist contributions” to the global order while remaining aware of America’s limited leverage.