The Top Ten Unicorns of China Policy – My Two Cents

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Daniel Blumenthal has a very cool article in Foreign Policy on U.S.-China relations. He organizes this around a list of ten policy misconceptions he refers to as unicorns:

Unicorns are beautiful, make-believe creatures. But despite overwhelming evidence of their fantastical nature, many people still believe in them. Much of America’s China policy is also underpinned by belief in the fantastical: in this case, soothing but logically inconsistent ideas.

Okay, I’m game. Let’s take a look at what Blumenthal considers to be China policy myths. (Note that I’m excerpting below – check out the original for Blumenthal’s entire arguments.)

1. The self-fulfilling prophecy. This is the argument that has the most purchase over the United States’ China policy. Treat China like an enemy, the belief goes, and it will become an enemy. Conversely, treat China like a friend, and it will become a friend.But three decades of U.S.-China relations should at least cast doubt on this belief.

Blumenthal seems to think that the U.S. is “neglecting” a future military threat from China, emphasizing proposed American defense budget cuts. While I agree with his general point here that treating China like either a friend or an enemy will not necessarily make that happen, I don’t think that huge military expenditures are therefore warranted.

Look, the U.S. already spends a ginormous amount on its military. Surely it can hack away at that monstrous budget without adverse consequences. China has a long way to go before it can pose a direct military threat to the U.S., and even then, only from a regional perspective.

2. Abandoning Taiwan will remove the biggest obstacle to Sino-American relations.

This one seems particularly weak to me. Blumenthal argues that the U.S. has already, for all practical purposes, severed ties with Taiwan: “There is essentially nothing on the U.S.-Taiwan policy agenda.” And yet, he says, China has been aggressive regionally, and the U.S. has not seen better China relations as a result.

I’m confused by this. With the exception of periodic arguments about arms sales (we had one recently), China and the U.S. haven’t been arguing about Taiwan very much. Isn’t that a victory in and of itself? Sure, the U.S. and China are not best friends as a result; there are other bilateral issues out there that haven’t been resolved (e.g. currency, trade, IP).

Does Blumenthal really think that if the U.S. sold more arms to Taiwan and if Obama visited there a couple of times, China would be more timid when it came to Taiwan and Japan? I think the opposite might be true.

3. China will inevitably overtake America, and America must manage its decline elegantly.

Agreed in part. I don’t think that the first part can be dismissed, though. Just going by population and current projections, China’s economy will be larger than that of the U.S. at some point. Blumenthal gives us a list of China’s economic and political problems, arguing that China may not ever catch the U.S. I doubt that, but why this fascination with who’s #1?

As to the second part of that statement, should America somehow “manage its decline”? I agree with Blumenthal that this makes no sense, but I question whether there is a vocal community out there even making that argument. Look, I don’t even know what it means to manage a decline. Whether the U.S. economy stagnates or not, or if it continues to see a drop in standard of living, its foreign policy will remain keyed on benefiting America. That’s what governments do.

If Blumenthal is somehow pushing back against folks (like me) who say that the U.S. should not try to contain China, or to somehow interfere with China’s rise, then I’ll stick with my original position. China’s rise might not be inevitable, but zero-sum thinking won’t help the U.S. hold on to its superpower position.

4 (related to 3). China is America’s banker. America cannot anger its banker. In fact, China is more like a depositor. It deposits money in U.S. Treasurys because its economy does not allow investors to put money elsewhere. There is nothing else it can do with its surpluses unless it changes its financial system radically (see above).

Absolutely true. I’m with Blumenthal on this one, and I’ve never subscribed to the “America’s banker” theory, which totally ignores why China went into U.S Treasury bonds in the first place.

5. America is engaging China. This is a surprising policy unicorn. After all, the United States does have an engagement policy with China. But it is only engaging a small slice of China: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

This is another one that just confused me. Blumenthal argues for some sort of outreach policy, that even U.S. presidents should insist “on speaking to a real cross-section of Chinese society.”

Huh? Does Obama routinely reach out to the French people? Brazilians? When was the last time he spoke to a cross-section of Saudis?

This is just weird. I think Blumenthal just doesn’t like the CCP and wants the U.S. government to use its soft power to further legitimize dissidents and other groups. If that’s your argument, fine. Blumenthal should have put his cards on the table on this issue instead of dressing it up a straw man as a “unicorn.”

6. America’s greatest challenge is managing China’s rise. Actually, America’s greatest challenge will probably be managing China’s long decline.

Perhaps this is a myth. This isn’t too controversial, although Blumenthal again shows his bias as a real China bear. All I would say here is that if China’s economy tanks, it will definitely be a huge challenge to the U.S.

7. China’s decline will make our lives easier.

Agreed that this is a myth, although for different reasons. Blumenthal seems to think in terms of a “wounded beast” scenario and is worried about a declining/unstable nation with a lot of weapons. Yes, that would be a concern, but a more likely scenario is an unstable country that has a negative effect on the U.S. economy. A sick China is bad for the U.S. either way you look at it.

8. America needs to extricate itself from the “distractions” of the Middle East and South Asia to focus on China.

Blumenthal seems to be acting purposely obtuse here. He talks about current, and significant, U.S. interest in the Middle East and why America cannot ignore those realities. Of course.

But the “unicorn” he refers to has its genesis with the Iraq war, when the Bush Administration totally dropped the ball on U.S. Asia policy. Instead of remaining active in regional bodies like APEC and voicing its concerns with the members of ASEAN, the U.S. focused on the Middle East at the expense of Asia policy, and China took advantage of that vacuum.

Blumenthal is misrepresenting this “unicorn,” which is pretty much an outdated policy critique anyway. Back in 2003/4 when people were actually discussing this seriously, the only point was that the U.S. should have a balanced approach and should not divert institutional resources away from Asia.

9. America needs China’s help to solve global problems. This is further down on my list because it is not really a fantastical unicorn. It is true. What is a fantasy is that China will be helpful.

I think Blumenthal is basically saying here that the U.S. is wasting its time asking China to help with multilateral issues. Uh, okay. To the extent that China has not fixed North Korea or given up more with respect to global carbon emissions negotiations, that’s something to discuss. But to make a sweeping statement that China should be written off as a source of assistance? That’s nuts.

Would it make sense to move forward with multilateral negotiations on the environment without China at the table? North Korea? I don’t really know where Blumenthal is going with this.

At the very least, as China’s influence and reach expand globally, its interests at some point on some of these multilateral issues will better align with those of the U.S. Will China get on board with the U.S. position on these issues in the future? I don’t know, but why would the U.S. ever stop trying to elicit their help?

10. Conflict with China is inevitable. A fair reading of the nine “unicorns” above may lead to the conclusion that America is destined to go to war with China. It may be a fair reading, but it is also an inaccurate one.

I couldn’t agree more. However, Blumenthal thinks that the way forward for the U.S. is to successfully deter the “China threat,” and to hope for a peaceful democratic transition. Well, in reference to #6 above, I don’t agree with Blumenthal on the whole China threat issue. Neither do I believe that there is one type of political structure that is the obvious way forward for China (Blumenthal does acknowledge this argument).

Excellent discussion framework, but ultimately I think I disagree with Blumenthal more than not. His views on China’s political structure, economy and global intentions are extremely negative, and I can’t share in his pessimism.

11 responses on “The Top Ten Unicorns of China Policy – My Two Cents

  1. King Tubby

    #11 China and Pakistan have a teeth and lips relationship. No, in the long-term Pakistan will cause China more grief than one can imagine.

  2. AndyR

    #1 Agree with you that by reducing military expenditures we are not creating the power vacuum implied by the author, but I think he is right that the “Treat China like an enemy, the belief goes, and it will become an enemy. Conversely, treat China like a friend, and it will become a friend.” attitude is wrong. He has a good point that as we’ve backed down, China has only increased military expenditures under the assumption of a conflict with the US.

    #2 You write, “Does Blumenthal really think that if the U.S. sold more arms to Taiwan and if Obama visited there a couple of times, China would be more timid when it came to Taiwan and Japan?” Which seems to miss his point. He makes the fair point that backing off of the Taiwan issue has only encouraged the rise of tensions in other areas. Where once China was focused solely on Taiwan, now they have time to throw their weight around in the South China Sea and the Diaoyu islands.

    #3 I don’t think there is any debate here. To me his point is, that nothing is inevitable. Hard to disagree with that.

    #4 Again nothing to debate

    #5 Blumenthal writes “Chinese officials come to the United States and meet with whomever they want (usually in carefully controlled settings and often with groups that are critical of the U.S. government and very friendly to the Chinese government).” I would have liked to see examples. I don’t see how he isn’t putting his cards on the table here though. I think he is pretty clear that he thinks the US should have a PUBLIC outreach policy to those critical of the Chinese government. (From what I understand of embassy work, they actually do actively communicate with such groups, just not at the high profile public level.)

    #6 Contradictory. See #3, if nothing is inevitable why do we need to prepare for managing China’s decline?

    #7 You are both right.

    #8 I don’t see how he is being obtuse. He is arguing that we can’t abandon our interests in the Middle East, South or Central Asia to focus more heavily on China because they are all “interconnected” anyway. This seems in line with the realities of globalization.

    #9 “But to make a sweeping statement that China should be written off as a source of assistance?” He doesn’t. From the article, “It is a fact that global problems would be easier to manage with Chinese help. ” He is saying that they can be of assistance, but we can’t count on them to be a “co-leader” and he is right. The Copenhagen negotiations proved this and at the beginning of the Obama administration there were overtures opening the door for China to assume a bigger cooperative leadership role on Global issues. They did not accept, and they won’t because they are not ready, nor do I think they ever will be, to do so.

    #10 Agree that conflict is not inevitable. But unlike you, I think it is naive to assume that China is not a threat, or should not be contained. If many of China’s leaders view the US as a threat and are actively building their military with that in mind, then obviously we can’t just ignore that in our policy strategy. I agree with you that the goal of transition to democracy modeled on the West is wrong-headed. One because China needs to develop a political framework that suit its needs, but also because a democratic transition does not necessarily mean that the resulting government would be friendly to the united states or stable for the region.

  3. AndyR

    Sorry one more:
    “but only succeeds in putting his own biases on display”-and when do we not “put our biases on display” in opinion writing?

      1. AndyR

        So he should have started the article with “My personal biases that will influence my opinion expressed in this article are as follows: I believe that China should be treated as a potential military threat to the United States of America, and I believe that China’s rise is over-hyped and that conversely the current social and economic issues plaguing their nation will lead to a decline. Now let me proceed with my list.” When do writers do this? You and I didn’t have any trouble picking out the general “biases” informing his arguments, so how was he not straightforward?

        Anyway, thanks for sharing the article. I get into this argument about “bias” all the time because I think its use has become sort of ridiculous. It’s too easy these days to accuse some one of “bias” when they are merely giving a conflicting opinion. After all, we all have individual “consistencies” in how we analyze the world around us that are informed by various beliefs. I think that it is silly to ask people to analyze and clearly identify their personal “biases” every time they express an opinion. I don’t know anybody who does this because bias is a reflection of the audiences interpretation rather than the speaker’s intentions in my opinion.

        1. Stan Post author

          It’s not a question whether he is biased or not. We all are. It’s a matter of obfuscation and honesty. I try to state my biases upfront when I can (and it isn’t that awkward) and make arguments based on what I believe in.

          For example, supporters of Creationism commonly say that they are not religious, or don’t care about religion, but rather are just involved in a scientific discussion. They are hiding the ball, making a faux scientific argument based on religious belief.

          Similarly, if I say that China will inevitably collapse, and base this on an econ argument, that’s fine. But if my econ argument is just a weak attempt to bolster my real feelings (e.g. China will collapse because it is Communist, or authoritarian), then that’s dishonest. Just come out and say that you think Communist countries will inevitably collapse, and back it up with something logical — that I can respect.

        2. S.K. Cheung

          I agree with AndyR. It is far too easy, and therefore ubiquitous, for people to criticize opinions they don’t like simply with accusations of bias. This method sustains entire blogs, and I think we all know one in particular I’m referring to. But it is ridiculous to besmirch someone’s opinion simply by saying it’s biased, because I’ve yet to see a completely unbiased “opinion”. You’d be asking someone to offer an opinion when they don’t have one. That carte-blanche virginal cherry-popper of an opinion might be unbiased…but it is also likely to be uninformed and useless.

          Instead, when critiquing opinion, better to simply agree or disagree, and provide reasons and arguments for so doing. That would be far more compelling than calling “bias”.

          Furthermore, opinion pieces often work backwards anyway. The author has an opinion, and selectively picks that which supports his opinion, to the exclusion of stuff that might diminish it. The persuasiveness of that opinion is directly proportional to an assessment of the merits of that which he included, as well as that which he ignored.

          As for a judgment of the writer’s motivations and “real feelings”, that becomes extremely speculative, and dare I say, fraught with bias.

  4. Justin Liu

    Why is it that American commentators are reluctant to discuss the optimal outcome for the US in China, which I believe would be a collapse of the communist government and the establishment of a pro-west neoliberal government that will introduce financial reform?

    Maybe I am cynical but I see much of the freedom agenda funding aimed at China as a softpower way to achieve this.

      1. S.K. Cheung

        OK. But who actually considers a “pro-west neoliberal government” (however defined) to be the “optimal outcome” for America geo-politically and economically?