China a Natural Ally

Thomas Barnett argues that a little strategic vision is all that’s needed to turn China from a potential adversary to a key ally in spreading globalism.

Loaded with excess bodies willing to scour the world for economic opportunity, China is America’s natural ally in extending globalization’s reach and absorbing those off-grid regions where rogue regimes, failed states, and transnational terrorism thrive.

A smart America co-opts China’s rise just as Britain shaped ours a century ago. Instead of containing China, we should steer its rise to suit our strategic purposes. And what China must do is what America did back then: build its military and rebrand it as a force for global stability.

A good place to start is Africa. The Pentagon has recently established a dedicated Africa Command to thwart radical Islam’s penetration of the continent. That military unit should work hand-in-glove with China, which has already flooded Africa with 80,000 nationals engaged in pre-emptive nation building. In this alliance, America focuses on governance and security while China focuses on infrastructure and markets to accelerate Africa’s integration into the global economy.

Barnett is generally more optimistic than I am about the ability of the United States to spread “good” in the world and this case is no exception. He’s right, though, that both powers have a shared interest in spreading the norms of globalism, if nothing else because we have so many comparative advantages.

A wealthy China is arguably less dangerous, as the incentives for military conflict with a major trading partner are generally outweighed by the costs. Then again, becoming wealthier is the only way China can carve out regional hegemony. And the disincentives game works in both directions: The United States would be similarly constrained in its options for reigning in Chinese militarism vis-a-vis Taiwan and Tibet.

via Sean Meade

FILED UNDER: Asia, Economics and Business,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. DC Loser says:

    Barnett is essentially correct. Aside from the Taiwan issue, there isn’t really any overriding issue which would cause a US – China confrontation. Certainly the ideological issues are no longer there.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Barnett is essentially wrong. He sees far more similarity between 19th century America and 21st century China than actually exists. China is an oligarchy with a thin layer of connected wealthy, an almost non-existent middle class, and huge numbers of peasants who barely get by. Freedoms are very, very few.

    China can’t become wealthy without developing an internal market. That’s the long and short of it. The numbers just aren’t there. It can become wealthier continuing its current “beggar thy neighbor” policies but it can’t become wealthy.

    If China becomes what Barnett dreams of for it, it will be for a Chinese reason in pursuit of a Chinese agenda. Our ability to influence what happens is nearly non-existent. I believe that the odds are against it—civil war and fraction is far more likely.

    19th century America was mostly landowning farmers. It was arguably freer than it is now. It became wealthy by cultivating an internal market, protected from outside competition. Not really very much like China at all.

    However, Barnett is right in detail. We should encourage China’s engagement with the rest of the world. In doing so we should also observe its actions closely and not sugarcoat them.

  3. Matthew Stinson says:

    Dave, I have to disagree slightly with your picture of life in China. Thanks in part to expanding university enrollment, the middle class has grown considerably in the last 15 years, and their access to capital is helping drive the ridiculous real estate boom in every major city. Moreover, the middle class and elites enjoy most of the (non-political) freedoms Americans do. That said, about a billion people in China remain exceedingly poor and less free than their wealthier counterparts, and that, I agree, is a source of instability and potential civil war in the future. Of course, other possible sources of Chinese civil war exist, including the “female shortage” in the population, environmental damage (which is primarily experienced along class lines), and the 2008 Olympics. (Just kidding about the Olympics — I hope.)

    Getting to the article, is Barnett deliberately ignoring what China is doing in Africa? The graf James quoted is utterly bizarre. There’s very little chance to link an Euro-American “good government” agenda in Africa with Chinese neo-colonial realpolitik. I mean, we have the West promising economic ties in exchange for improved freedom and stability, or China promising cold hard FDI to any African regime that wants it, with few strings attached other than freedom of access for Chinese companies. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see whose offer has more appeal to African kleptocrats or why these two policies have little in common. Moreover, there’s little chance that Chinese citizens at present would feel squeamish about exploitation of African peoples the way Westerners do. They’re still stuck in the 19th century mode, and Chinese newspapers are filled with “ooga booga” accounts of African life, and even educated Chinese have a Kiplingesque interpretation of China’s role in Africa.

    P.S. On a somewhat related note, tonight I went into a bathroom in a Chinese shopping mall and a joke on the wall, which was posted by the mall itself, read, “Question: What’s the traditional cuisine of Africans? Answer: People.” This in a cosmopolitan city with a large African student population, too.

  4. DC Loser says:

    Dave – I would argue that it is your perception of China that is out of date. There are numerous blogs from expats living in China which talks about what China is like today. This is an example. China is like a Rohrsach test, different people see different things, depending on what you want to see. It’s not easy to characterize the nature of the people and society in a single paragraph.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    I have no doubt that the Chinese middle class has grown. It grows precisely as fast as the ruling oligarchy allows it to, consistent with preserving stability in the country. A consistent complaint of U. S. and European companies in China is that there aren’t enough people capable of holding down middle managment positions. Draw your own conclusions.

    I don’t believe that we should take a truculent attitude with respect to China nor that China is a threat to the United States in any significant sense. I just think that we shouldn’t romanticize what’s going on in China or what it’s likely to do in the future. I don’t believe that we can have a significant impact on what China does or does not do but we might be able to have some impact on what we do.

  6. yetanotherjohn says:

    19th century US-UK had language, legal system (in essence if not particulars), political system (again in essence if not particulars) and common heritage. These remain today. China has not only a different language, but one that is based on very different principles (e.g. tonal and the symbols for writing). China is still trying to work out such fundamental legal questions as private property. China is a one party rule where dissent is squashed. And while a small percentage of the US population has a common heritage, China is far removed than the European or even Latin American heritages.

    Use China and be used by China, but lets not pretend that we just naturally sing off the same song sheet.

  7. DC Loser says:

    19th century US-UK had language, legal system (in essence if not particulars), political system (again in essence if not particulars) and common heritage.

    You mean the UK had those in common with the Confederate States of America? Is that why they backed the losing side fof the Civil War?

  8. yetanotherjohn says:

    DC loser,

    Actually, the UK had those elements in common with both sides of the war of northern aggression. Further, the UK had a strong economic tie to the south in the form of cotton (the south growing and the UK spinning). Egyptian cotton went a long way towards limiting that tie.

    Now when you say the UK backed the south, I’m not sure what you mean. Certainly they did not challenge the US navy to break the blockade, they didn’t send troops (though they did send observers to both sides), and they sold weapons to both sides though the south needed them more and had less access because of the blockade. I’m not sure how you get to the idea that the UK backed the south over the north.

  9. Steve Verdon says:

    I’m reminded of James’ post, I think it was James’, that pointed out that researchers looking at China agreed to spout the Party line for access to data. Seems to me that given this, there should be a great deal of uncertainty attached to anything said or written about China.

    Yep, here is the article.

  10. Dave Schuler says:

    I can direct you to any number of papers questioning the veracity of Chinese GDP figures. I don’t think anyone denies that China is growing, growing fast, and getting wealthier. How fast, how much wealthier, where the money is going, and what we can expect in the future are all open to debate.

  11. Alan Kellogg says:

    James,

    What about Chinese militarism re the Russian Far East? Russia can’t even maintain basic infrastructure outside major cities and narrow corridors between them. Entire cities in Siberia are cut off completely during the winter, and if it weren’t for air travel a fair number would be closed off year round.

    And where thermonuclear devices are concerned one might as well ask, what Russian thermonuclear devices? We have no real idea of just how reliable Russian nukes are. Or how reliable the communications net is that connects everything together, the personnel in charge of the devices, or if the missiles and planes are even capable of performing. Considering how Russia as a whole has degraded over the years generally, I’d be rather surpired if Russia’s nuclear capability hasn’t degraded as well.

    From all I’ve heard, Russia is a paper tiger, and the paper has dry rot.

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    Russia can’t even maintain basic infrastructure outside major cities and narrow corridors between them.

    Never has been able to, at least in far eastern Siberia. There’s a great but little-known story about how a group of Czech POW’s seized the Trans Siberian Railway in 1918 and completely tied up commerce between European and Asian Russia.

  13. DC Loser says:

    And where thermonuclear devices are concerned one might as well ask, what Russian thermonuclear devices? We have no real idea of just how reliable Russian nukes are. Or how reliable the communications net is that connects everything together, the personnel in charge of the devices, or if the missiles and planes are even capable of performing. Considering how Russia as a whole has degraded over the years generally, I’d be rather surpired if Russia’s nuclear capability hasn’t degraded as well.

    That’s what the billions going to the intelligence community are for. Rest assured there are still people being paid handsomely to answer those questions.