Thursday, 18 March 2010

“The Beijing Consensus”, by Stefan Halper (Basic Books)


How China’s authoritarian model will dominate the 21st Century

The story of how China's non-confrontational strategy is reshaping the rules of the new world order. Stefan Halper, a senior fellow at Cambridge University, presents a coherent integration of both the economic and strategic sides of China-US relations.

In its efforts to influence the rest of the world – to create a new liberal and democratic order – the US has used its military and economic might to force developing countries to aim toward democratic reform and transparency. A fine strategy, when you're the only game in town. The Chinese, Halper argues, have chosen to confront the United States only indirectly.

Instead of playing by America's rules, as did the Soviet Union, China has redefined the rules of the game. China doles out money to dictators – with no strings attached. They buy resources from Africa and South America – without forcing transparency or reform down oligarchs’ throats. In doing so, it’s presenting the world’s despots with a viable alternative to the so-called Washington Consensus. China is showing the world how to have economic growth with an illiberal government. At the same time its rapid economic growth has created massive fissures in Chinese society between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. In order to maintain political control, the Chinese Communist Party has to sustain double-digit economic growth, which means that it must exploit and co-opt the rest of the world’s resources. Necessity lies at the heart of China’s expansionist policies. Without them, the Communist Party risks its own demise.

The Beijing Consensus is a pretty good little book. It discusses China’s place in the international order today, and how the US and China are “locked in a relationship of liabilities”. To quote the author, it

“confronts and rejects the conventional wisdom that the U.S.-China relationship is on track. It is not. The book also explodes the myth that a market economy leads to democratic government”

I would mostly agree with this, but the book is also more contemporary history than international relations or political analysis (though there is some very good analysis in here). Halper has a gift for presenting the facts in a clear, concise way – there’s a lot of detail and plenty of statistics contained within. While the analysis isn’t as deep as one might like, there is plenty in the book that would be of value to anyone studying or interested in China, the US and their relationship.

In Halper’s view, the ‘threat’ that China offers is not necessarily a military threat, but rather the more insidious and subtle threat that their brand of market-capitalism could eventually supercede the Western model in popularity and adoption:

“As growing numbers of countries in Africa and Latin America embrace relationships with China, one can see how Beijing’s example illuminates a path around the West. It is making the West irrelevant in world affairs. In effect, China is shrinking the West.”

“while [China’s] leaders follow a path of progressive engagement with the liberal international order, Beijing’s leaders are also leading a formidable assault on this order”

Of particular interest are the chapters about China’s policies and actions in and toward Africa, and also the chapter covering the Washington perspectives of China. This review will, therefore, favour comments about these two chapters. In the case of Africa and the developing world, Halper offers a long list of international pariahs and the extent (and form) of China’s support for them. The author tells us, China fulfils a role that Washington and many Western nations refuse to play – namely, that of ally, offering support (financial, political, and otherwise).

“Beijing plays the iniquitous partner – the Mr Hyde – to the malcontents of international society, while it simultaneously plays Dr Jekyll, an honest stakeholder in global civic culture. Nowhere is this duality clearer than in Africa.”

Times have changed for China, “it no longer seeks to export communism or actively undermines the liberal international order” as it did in the 1960s. Now, “it can and does offer autocrats and governments somewhere to run when they fall out of favour with the West.” China has become a

“critical source of financial autonomy… as well as a beacon of ideas and management expertise about capitalism in a less Western, less liberal format. Taken together, these trends suggest that China is set to have a greater impact on the world in the next two decades than any other country.”

It is this, Halper says, that will “have vastly greater impact” on the world than “the tactical military and economic ‘China threats’ concerning Washington today.”

There is a good description of the different forces pulling US China-policy one or another – from the “panda huggers” who promote increased economic engagement over all else (US presidents have, invariably, been drawn into this group, even if not immediately); or the “panda bashers”, who are wary of China and prefer bellicose language and the use of China as a reason for increased defence spending. This is a good chapter, with plenty of useful quotations from government officials and others to create a pretty paranoid picture.

The synopsis for this book suggests that Halper’s approach to US-China relations is hawkish, critical of Beijing’s policies. This is not entirely the case – frequently, it is not clear in which tone this book should be read. At times, Halper is more critical of the US and the West in their inability to present a viable alternative to what is clearly and increasingly successful Chinese approach.

The author maintains a degree of scholarly detachment from his subject throughout, and he should be applauded for this – too often books about China and the US are polemical, agenda-driven and ideologically overloaded. While Halper is clear with his positions, he presents well-researched data and evidence to support his ideas, as well as a selection of interesting and (in one instance, amusing) anecdotes. He cautions against certain knee-jerk and populist positions that paint the bilateral relationship in an overly negative or misleading manner – for example, the China’s position as one of America’s greatest creditors, a position that is “not simple and is better assessed in less apocalyptic terms”.

Looking at all the elements of the US-China relationship (economic, political and military; myth and reality), The Beijing Consensus will prove to be a very useful book to students of international relations, China, and the US. I would therefore recommend it, with the caveat that it is more a work of contemporary history than in-depth IR analysis.

Also try: Zachary Karabell, Superfusion (2010); Joshua Kurlantzick, Charm Offensive (200); James Mann, The China Fantasy (2007); David Lampton, Same Bed, Different Dreams (2001); Patrick Tyler, A Great Wall (2000); James Kynge, China Shakes The World (2005); Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World (2010); Serge Michel, Michel Beuret, and Paolo Woods, China Safari (2009); Will Hutton, The Writing on the Wall (2008); Susan Stirk, China: Fragile Superpower (2008)

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