Why China isn't freaking out

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Putin and President of China Hu Jintao following the signing of the Joint Declaration on Mar. 26, 2007.

Article Highlights

  • Moscow compensates for its inability to keep pace with competitors by creating the illusion of power through aggressive language

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  • Indeed, the China of 2009 to 2010 made itself into a textbook case of when appeasement fails

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  • Neither the reset nor the pivot – equally hollow in their own ways – will fundamentally change the behavior of either

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Writing in Foreign Policy, Daniel Drezner recently drew attention to an ostensibly sharp contrast in rhetoric coming out of Moscow and Beijing these days. He wonders why the Kremlin would intensify its criticism of the United States when it enjoys the benefits (some might say concessions) of the Obama administration’s “reset” policy. Meanwhile, China, the implicit target of the administration’s Asia “pivot,” seems to be adopting a much less confrontational posture.

Drezner’s observation, however, is only a snapshot in time. It’s much more useful to explore Russian and Chinese reactions to U.S. policy over the entirety of the Obama administration. Russia’s level of “freak out” (to use Drezner’s term) has been fairly consistent during this period, although there’s arguably been a small spike in recent months.

Soon after the inception of the so-called “reset,” the Kremlin was publicly threatening to deploy short-range ballistic missiles to its Kaliningrad exclave – which it may follow through on this spring – and to withdraw from a yet to be ratified New START in the absence of a U.S. commitment to scale down its missile defense plans in Europe.

"The Obama administration’s policy of accommodation  ...was interpreted as a further sign of weakness." 

Similarly, China’s rhetoric was much more bombastic earlier in the administration, and hasn’t been nearly as consistent as Drezner suggests. Xi Jinping may be responding to the U.S. with “aplomb,” but state-controlled media has often adopted a more strident tone. Following the new U.S. defense guidelines, for example, a Global Times editorial asserted in typically hawkish fashion that “China should unite with all possible forces and keep certain strategic initiatives against the U.S.” in order to combat attempts to “contain” China.

An editorial from last November explained  that “some hostility from the outside cannot be dissolved by our good will. We must develop our own strength to break their wild ambition of ‘taking China down.’” China’s reaction to the “pivot,” while calmer than one might have expected, is also more complicated than it appears at first glance. Beijing perhaps wishes to evince both calm and strength; it’s not panicking, nor will it roll over in the face of American resolve.

When it comes to the present disparity in Russian and Chinese rhetoric, Drezner is far too dismissive of Russia’s relative decline. Moscow compensates for its inability to keep pace with competitors by creating the illusion of power through aggressive language.

Moreover, derzhavnichestvo – or great power ideology – is thoroughly embraced by the country’s political elites. The perpetuation of this idea is important for two reasons: it resonates with a large segment of the population and is therefore valuable for propping up the regime’s legitimacy; and it allows Russia’s powerful defense establishment to justify constant budget increases and the procurement of power projection capabilities commensurate with the country’s supposed status as a global player. The latter is particularly important for Russia’s struggling arms industry.

It’s also a mistake to imply that Russia and China face similar unrest at home. Although demonstrations in China may be indicative of larger, systemic problems, they have thus far been limited to specific, localized issues, such as land seizures or village corruption. And rather than rail against the central government, protesters are often looking to Beijing for help. The roots of Russia’s dissent, however, run much deeper. These protests are founded on broader frustration with the rigidity of the country’s “managed democracy.” Anger about Putin’s brazen decision to swap jobs with President Dmitry Medvedev and Russia’s rigged parliamentary election, coupled with the lingering consequences of the financial crisis, converged in a perfect storm last month that has shaken the regime to its core. The unease associated with these events, and the Kremlin’s traditional tendency to deflect domestic challenges by attacking the U.S./NATO, shouldn’t be overlooked. At least until recently, China hasn’t felt a similar need to do so – the localized nature of the Wukan-style protests that Drezner cites makes it easier for Beijing to step in and resolve the problems, even if only superficially.

Rather, recent Chinese rhetoric with regards to the United States has been more externally driven. Chinese leaders saw the 2008 financial crisis as a failure of the western liberal system. Perceiving the United States as seriously weakened, the crisis presented a rising and increasingly confident China with a strategic opportunity to make advances in Asia. The Obama administration’s policy of accommodation – not just floating a G-2, as Drezner mentions, but also making very public concessions to Beijing on Taiwan, South Asia, and human rights – was interpreted as a further sign of weakness. Obama offered Chinese President Hu Jintao an inch and Hu tried to take a mile.

But Beijing miscalculated. China’s forward-leaning policies – more muscular enforcement of territorial claims in the South and East China Seas, suggesting replacing the U.S. dollar as the international reserve currency, cracking down on dissent and free speech – failed to advance Chinese goals while forcing the Obama administration to rethink its approach to the People’s Republic. Indeed, the China of 2009 to 2010 made itself into a textbook case of when appeasement fails. The so-called Asian “pivot” and the defense guidelines calling for a rebalancing of forces toward the Asia-Pacific are in large measure a direct response to China’s policy of speaking loudly while carrying a big stick.

Beijing recognizes this. It knows that its assertiveness drew Washington more deeply into Asia and has little reason to think that continued assertiveness will drive Washington out. As Drezner suggested, China certainly “has moved down the learning curve.” But more than that, Beijing has bigger problems than Drezner lets on: a coming leadership transition, uncertainty in North Korea, a demographic crisis, and a slowing economy that China’s leaders may not long be able to hold aloft. As Beijing looks to consolidate gains and protect its rise, it will benefit from a stable external environment. Lashing out at Washington would not further such ends.

Finally, Beijing may suspect that Obama’s “pivot” is emptier than the rhetoric suggests. The United States can’t exactly ignore the Middle East, and it’s not lost on China that Iran continues to consume an enormous amount of Washington’s attention – Beijing’s support for Tehran helps ensure that continues to be the case. Moreover, thanks to the planned U.S. defense cuts, it’s plain to see that U.S. military capabilities in Asia will be more limited than contending with a rising China requires. Beijing could “freak out,” but probably recognizes that the “pivot” isn’t worth getting worked up about.

Analyzing recent differences in China and Russia’s respective rhetoric is an interesting exercise, but those differences aren’t surprising. The two are vastly different countries at different stages of great power evolution. But both countries do pose challenges for the United States and those challenges haven’t changed. Neither the reset nor the pivot – equally hollow in their own ways – will fundamentally change the behavior of either.

Michael Mazza is a senior research associate and Daniel Vajdic is a research assistant at AEI.

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