In the wake of its hardline position at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, and the threat by Google to withdraw from the country over claims that it had suffered massive cyber-attacks suspected of originating in the People's Republic, China's international image has taken a bit of a bashing. This sort of conflict, if one accepts Stefan Halper's argument, should not surprise us.
Far from being a strategic partner or competitor, as some analysts and policymakers like to view it, on Halper's reckoning China is both. He refers to a conversation with former US diplomat Winston Lord, in which Lord had called China the ultimate contradiction - a market-led economy presided over by a Communist Party, a global player preoccupied by its own massive internal problems, and a historic culture that has been reinventing itself into an ultramodernist model. Taking all this into account, it is no surprise that making consistent policy towards China is challenging.
Halper served in the White House of Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan. His understanding of Washington's policymaking community is therefore excellent, and this book's emphasis is naturally somewhat US-centric. His plea is for the world's last remaining superpower to "get China right".
Assuming that marketising its economy and engaging in the global trade system will magically, slowly help China transform into a liberal democracy like those in the West is, he states, naive. It does not help that the US decision-making elite, in government and business, view China either as a mighty new positive model for the world or as a malevolent threat biding its time before it has sufficient power to strike. The Chinese government's inability or unwillingness to communicate its own vision of its global role adds to the confusion, as does the exponential, and frequently highly opportunistic, increases in Chinese investment abroad, much of it into countries with huge governance and human rights problems. All of this is rounded off by a legacy of historic distrust, and America's belief in its own exceptionalism, and the dents this has taken in the wake of a Bush administration "obsessed with Iraq".
This book's subtitle, however, is somewhat misleading. In a long central chapter about the country's internal challenges, Halper makes it clear that he does not believe that, any time in the next half-century at least, China is likely to mount a serious challenge against US dominance. America, he says in his concluding chapter, is the "necessary power" with which the rest of the world must engage. He then sets out a series of surprisingly straightforward measures for the US to create a global economic infrastructure.
It is clear we are in an era of transition. Globalisation's bottom line means that, as Halper comments, powers as significant as the US and China (and India, Brazil, the European Union and so on) cannot live without each other, despite sometimes being set on competing paths. The US cannot unilaterally impose solutions on issues such as the environment and global food security. Halper mentions it only in passing, but coming conflicts are likely to be most intense around energy supply, where China's hunger continues unhindered and where it will almost certainly compete with Western interests. So at least in this respect, Halper's general point is right: we need to be ready for a coming decade of harder talk and harder deal-making. China won't just lie down and accept what it complainingly calls Western hegemony.
Unlike Halper, though, I am less relaxed about the internal stability of China and of the party that rules it. Its strategy of pumping out growth in gross domestic product, at which it has succeeded magnificently since emerging from the dark final years of Maoist economic state centralism, was only ever a game for the short term. Chinese society has entered a period of increasing contention since 2001, at about the same time that it joined the World Trade Organization. There are massive issues of governance and legal reform and of the role of civil society, which now sits in a legal grey zone, despite blossoming in the past decade. The elite leadership's rhetoric about "harmonious society", if it means anything, must point towards creating consensus within society despite this tumult.
But the hardest questions for the Chinese Communist Party, I suspect, will not be its global role and how it relates to the West, but the increasingly complex expectations of its people, who may discover a need to participate more in their own political destinies than they are presently allowed. The party has shown enormous adaptability and resilience so far. But the economy was the easy part. From this point, things, as the Chinese saying goes, start to get interesting.
The Beijing Consensus: How China's Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the Twenty-First Century
By Stefan Halper
Basic Books, 312pp, £16.99
Published 22 April 2010