What ‘Getting China Wrong’ gets wrong about China

Foreign Affairs

Aaron Friedberg's U.S.-centric approach to the question of strategic engagement with China wildly overestimates actual American influence in the region.

Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

In the early 1950s, following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the U.S. Congress pursued a rather pointless inquiry aiming to find out “Who had lost China?” It neglected the fact that nations have their own agency, regardless of what superpowers may prefer. The Westphalian theory of state sovereignty, whereby nations are free to pursue their own domestic policies, may be more of an ideal than a generalized practice, with influence operations of various scales and orders going on all the time. And while stronger nations naturally have more leverage, in the era of nuclear weapons, there is an obvious limit to which major nations can pose a threat to, and hence impose their will upon, each other.

Which is to say that the current debate over U.S. engagement with China, and its merits or otherwise in light of China’s ever-increasing diplomatic aggression and anti-Western alliance with Russia, tends to smack of a U.S.-centric narcissism. The idea that China’s trajectory might fundamentally have been changed by bolder or wiser U.S. policy is really quite fanciful, especially considering how Chinese leaders have made their governing structure ironclad from external influence. Nonetheless, in Aaron Friedberg’s new book Getting China Wrong, he does present a convincing picture of the U.S. (where the focus solely lies) being caught up in a post-Cold War euphoria, where the only conceivable trajectory for the remaining Communist nations was a Soviet-style collapse (see: Chang, Gordon), and of leaders being almost wilfully blind to the true intentions of the Chinese leadership. He thus attempts to explain the origins of the engagement strategy, its rationales and expectations, and then examines what he sees as the misreadings of China’s political, economic, and strategic policies. He overestimates, however, the degree to which these intentions have been some hidden strategy hatched by Zhongnanhai, and his prescriptions to counter this dark masterplan veer between the improbable and the absurd.

Friedberg’s analysis of the failures of U.S. political and business leaders vis-a-vis China, for the most part, ring true — albeit with the benefit of hindsight, when the contingencies of the present are tidied into a neat narrative of Chinese duplicity. He notes the huge lobbying effort from “aerospace (Boeing, Hughes, Lockheed, and McDonnell Douglas), the automotive industry (Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors), energy (Exxon), electrical machinery (Westinghouse and General Electric), electronics (Motorola and Intel) and food processing (Coca-Cola, Pepsi and McDonalds)” in lobbying for China to maintain its most favored nation trade status. Well, naturally: a huge domestic market and enormous wage differentials are going to attract American capitalists. The question is how these align with your strategic goals. The U.S. seems to have merely assumed that markets mean freedom, which is a remarkable intellectual oversight.

Similarly, Under Secretary of State Peter Starnoff in 1996 said “encouraging China’s integration into the world community” would mean “fostering [its] adherence to institutionally-recognized norms and standards of behavior.” These standards are of course U.S. standards. The question arises: does the U.S. recognize its position as a hegemonic state and thus as the origin of what it considers acceptable, or does it imagine these norms are somehow God-given and inherent? I rather suspect the latter. It explains the enormous folly of invading Iraq and expecting a liberal democracy to flower there from the barrel of a gun. The U.S. has been unchallenged for so long that it takes the effects of its power as the state of nature. (Hence also U.S. conservative attempts to severely limit all forms of domestic government: they are so sheltered by the strength of their institutions that they can’t imagine their absence and therefore feel free to abuse them.)

In a similar way, the key failing of Friedberg’s book is that while he recognizes China’s different governing and diplomatic traditions, he still assumes that a Wilsonian style of liberal diplomacy (the “Star Trek” model, if you like) is the natural order, and thus takes China’s reversion to outright power moves as “illegitimate.” But China’s tradition of fealty and tribute lasted for millennia, with itself as the locus of power and order in Asia. This collapsed during the Qing dynasty, true, but Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 transparently sees it as his role to restore it. The question for U.S. policymakers thus ought to be, “How can we provide a better global narrative?” The conflict will show whether power or values will endure as the means of diplomacy, for plainly China’s neighbors are highly ambivalent about its rise. A nation which wants supplicants will not be loved.

Yet while NATO has been galvanized by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it’s hard to see the U.S. presenting itself as a touchstone of either freedom or economic beneficence. U.S. democracy is hanging by a thread, its governing institutions visibly tottering on the precipice of total illegitimacy. Nor is its global generalship displaying much wisdom. China’s free run in Africa is testament to centuries of Western mistreatment of the continent, while the major U.S. initiatives of the 21st century, in Afghanistan and Iraq, were unmitigated failures. Chinese expansiveness being a result of these disasters is often noted — particularly through Xi’s statement that China has a “period of historical opportunity” — but Friedberg seems to take this as some kind of duplicity. How dare a geopolitical rival take advantage of American weakness!

The other major flaw in Getting China Wrong is that in locating Western misapprehension, Friedberg assumes current Chinese policy extends smoothly and perennially backwards. But there has been a genuine shift, I think, in China’s handling of its external affairs. Just as Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin led to Mao’s paranoia that he too would be deposed, resulting in an attack on the Party leadership during the Cultural Revolution, so the Color Revolutions and Arab Spring terrified Putin and the Chinese Communist Party. They know how revolutions can spread, and dread ending up like Colonel Gadhafi. And so, with democratic revolutions aflame on their borders (remember that after calls for a “Jasmine revolution,” there was a rather timid protest in Beijing, which even drew the U.S. ambassador Jon Huntsman), the consequences were not merely internal tightening but also external confrontation — the better to demonstrate the bravery of their leaders toward nefarious oppressive foreign governments. For more than a decade, Western governments have tolerated this, perhaps assuming a degree of acting out, but no longer. Where this will leave China is anyone’s guess.

Getting China Wrong deserves some plaudits for trying to re-examine the fundamentals of the Sino-U.S. relationship, but its all-too-plain desire to upbraid China and to impose a U.S. narrative on it make it a typical product of their diplomatic breakdown, rather than an approach to its resolution. A smarter, wiser book would look at the mutual breakdown from both sides. But Friedberg seems all too happy to take current Chinese rhetoric at face value, and see it as the nation’s real face, rather than a political expediency of the moment. This is Getting China Wrong 101.

For more book reviews, see our Reading China archive.