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Enthusiasm Fades for China’s Rise

July 22, 2010
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Matt Yglesias is concerned about US and European views of Chinese economic growth. Citing these Pew Global numbers, his post largely ignores the connection between the numbers on the right half of the chart and the left. Chinese economic growth is not purely a force for human welfare, although we can argue that maybe from an ethical perspective, this is its most important consequence. Were we to rephrase the question in terms of the improvement of economic and humanitarian outcomes for Chinese workers, perhaps the US and Europe would not be hard-hearted.

But China’s economy is the wealth base for China the country and its military – and unsurprisingly, countries outside of the Atlantic community, such as South Korea, India and Japan, for whom China is a major security threat or potential threat, have negative views about the Chinese economy as well.

As Dan Drezner points outChina itself often takes a zero-sum view of the world and its sometimes heavy-handed treatment of foreign companies is rousing ire amongst business lobbies. In terms of global politics, China certainly still believes politics is a zero-sum game, and it has certainly tried to exercise its newfound power in the last few years. Obama’s diplomatic visits have not been anything to celebrate, military relations are becoming increasingly fraught, and China is picking fights with foreign multinationals, disputants over the South China Sea, and, while behaving the way we should expect a rising power to, still stepping on toes.

We have also lately seen the geopolitical consequences of an assertive China, something that for China’s neighbors, does not look like a great scenario. The Chinese military buildup continues, and China’s vision (or perhaps lack thereof) of regional security has yet to persuade many Asian states. In the wake of the sinking of ROKS Cheonan, China has focused its efforts on watering down and stonewalling punitive measures against the DPRK, and rather than taking a constructive role in the peninsula, prompted the US and the South Koreans to undertake major naval exercises, which China responded to with its own. China has also continued to shelter Burma, which is steadily ramping up its clandestine nuclear program. This is not a geopolitical environment most Asian states would prefer to live in, and it is not one many Americans and Europeans feel comfortable abetting, I would imagine.

While American leadership can certainly be abused and overvalued, if it can do anything constructive, it can try to manage, without containing or rolling back, the rise of China and the transition into a new international order. America will remain in some ways an empire by invitation in the Asia-Pacific. Statistics like these reflect a greater problem in international politics, and Yglesias should not be surprised if relative, power-political concerns trump the absolute gains of economics. It would not be the first time this has occurred in history, but the best way to avoid a truly tragic misunderstanding would be to acknowledge and address serious fears, rather than dismiss them as ignorant.

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