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Edward Friedman and Barrett L. McCormick eds., What if China Doesn’t Democratize? Implications for War and Peace
This is a book that abounds in information on, and analyses of an important subject. The basic question it sets out to answer is how to achieve peaceful co-existence with a China that is increasingly nationalistic and refuses to move towards democracy. As it turns out, the writers far from offer uniform answers to this question, and to a certain extent the work's title is misleading. For some, China is going sooner or later to become democratic, while for others, this outcome, although desirable, is not only uncertain but does not constitute an absolute guarantee against all armed conflict, particularly with the United States. However, the great quality of the contributions that are presented here largely makes up for the drawbacks of a many-sided, if not contradictory book that has the dual merit of highlighting the complex fault lines between the different possible conceptual approaches and usefully fuelling a debate that is by definition inexhaustible.
The contributions by the various writers here were originally delivered as papers at a conference organised in 1997 and were subsequently updated and brought together in a single volume in 1999-2000, shortly after NATO's bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, that is at the height of Sino-American tension. But the arguments that they put forward remain more relevant than ever, given that the tendencies observed in the wake of Tiananmen (1989) and the missile crisis in the Taiwan Strait (1995-1996) have been so clearly confirmed.
The book is divided into three parts: 1) Where is China headed?; 2) Is democratic peace possible?; and 3) What are the political implications for the China policy of the United States and for Sino-US relations?
The first part is a stimulating but also rather debatable balancing act between an opening optimistic section primarily devoted to the internal factors of change (three chapters) and a second pessimistic section, focusing on the external attitudes of the Chinese authorities (a further three chapters). Admittedly, as Suisheng Zhao points out, it is clear that nationalism has been used as an instrument of the state, more to maintain the internal stability of the regime than to embark on any external bellicose adventure. In this regard, Jianwei Wang is quite convincing when he puts forward the idea that such nationalism is part and parcel of the process of constructing a modern state of the kind that Western countries achieved a long time ago. Similarly, the buds of pluralism, and even democratisation, detected by Minxin Pei within the regime's soft authoritarianism are well known and may well lead to the promotion of a transition to democracy: village elections, legal reform, the strengthening of popular assemblies and the proliferation of (quasi) NGOs. But the conclusion to be drawn from this section does not seem to be the one that its writers would wish. An anti-Western irredentist nationalism, threats against Taiwan and China's authoritarian development are far from being at an end, and this despite the political mini-reforms observed and the absence of any expansionist project (as long, of course, as Taiwan is regarded as being part of the People's Republic of China ).
Conversely, is Chinese foreign policy merely a cause for concern? It is incontestable that, in order to justify its own strategy of regional domination, the Chinese communist rulers tend to demonise the international designs of Japan (Edward Friedman). Likewise, in spite of its progressive support of the main international human rights agreements, Communist China unflinchingly maintains a relativist and culturalist approach to the question, thereby succeeding in silencing a large part of the external criticism directed against its deplorable human rights record (Samuel Kim). In addition, June Dreyer is right to warn us that the country's democratisation will, in all likelihood, not modify or moderate its nationalism and territorial claims, particularly in the South China Sea. But Sino-Japanese relations remain close, indeed are highly active in economic terms, in spite of both Chinese criticisms and Japan's difficulties in accepting its historical responsibilities. Moreover, as S. Kim recognises, China's increasingly important participation in the international human rights system (including the International War Crimes Tribunal, despite its opposition to Milosevic's indictment) cannot but gradually erode and weaken the absolute conception of sovereignty proclaimed by the country. And although still authoritarian, the government in Peking is seeking more and more, in particular through a progressive acceptance of multilateral mechanisms (Spratlys, support of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty), to sooth the fears of its neighbours.
This gives some idea of the extent to which China's foreign policy depends on many complex factors, not all of which, moreover, are internal. Hence the interest of the discussion in the second part between David Bachman and Edward Friedman and of the essays in the third part, that nonetheless contain a certain number of omissions. D. Bachman is perfectly convincing when he considers that democratising the Chinese regime will not put an end to all Sino-American differences. Power relations will remain unchanged and the question of Taiwan risks becoming an even more difficult one to manage. E. Friedman is also right to remind us that Kant never claimed that democracies do not go to war with each other (something that is historically false), but argued rather that they tend to make war on each other less than dictatorships do (something that is statistically proven), as eternal peace is something that is built up gradually over time on the basis of the rule of law (pp. 229-230). That is why, in order to minimise the risks of armed conflict, democracies, particularly those in Asia, should act in an exemplary fashion and strive to integrate China, which will probably remain authoritarian for a long time to come, into a form of multilateral union.
Harvey Nelsen has therefore good grounds for declaring that the democratisation of China, although probable, will be a long and difficult process. In fact, the ethnic nationalism of the Chinese (a notion questioned by some of the writers) and the phenomenon of corruption, as well as Peking's power politics, will not go away merely by democratising the country (p. 279). Likewise, the priority given to economic development should continue to dissuade China strongly from launching into any major armed conflict. However, we are not in a situation of zero risk. The manipulation of nationalism by the Communist Party cuts both ways and requires from the United States a policy that does not involve putting up walls but rather one of aggressive engagement (Su Shaozhi and Michael Sullivan). This danger is also acknowledged by Barrett McCormick (pp. 321-322) who considers Washington and Peking to have a common interest in promoting a climate of compromise and negotiation (p. 325).
But is this possible? The answer must be that sometimes it is, but not always. And that depends in large part on the demands and ambitions of China, as the player in international relations that is doubtless today the most opposed to the status quo. Three variables must here be reintroduced. They are, whatever the disagreements among the different writers, fairly well neglected throughout the work. These concern the dangers of nationalism, the risks of war and the chances of democratisation.
The first of these variables is internal and subjective. The divisions within society, as within the Chinese leadership, are rarely mentioned, yet if one accepts the label of fragmented authoritarianism, a term coined by Kenneth Lieberthal, it is absolutely necessary to take account of the fact that in the People's Republic of China the social body as well as the Communist Party are today particularly divided. However, after reading the book, we are none the wiser about whether the forces in favour of democracy or of a moderate nationalism are potentially more powerful than those that preferthrough personal interest or out of fear of the risks that would be presented by a leap into democratic uncertaintyto see the present regime and a fiery nationalism maintained.
The second variable is external and objective. Whatever the nature of this regime, it has to confront an international system that is both particularly unequal and structured around a single world power, the United States, plus a handful of regional powers. This system is not necessarily unfavourable to China which is not only recognised as one of the great five of the United Nations, but has seen its regional and global influence grow noticeably over the past twenty years. However, the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the end of American-Soviet bipolarity have put Peking ipso facto into a new game with Washington. No longer facing any common threat, both these capitals are once again letting the rivalries (regional domination) and conflicts (Taiwan), that have been opposing them since 1950, show through. A democratic China might conceivably be better disposed to negotiate a sharing of responsibilities with the United States (and Japan) in terms of regional security, and would have less need to try to have the world believe that it is capable of reaching the same superpower level as the United States. However, that is far from being clear, just as, in the eyes of Washington, and irrespective of who is in the White House, there can be no question of beginning to negotiate and so to compromise the vital role that American forces play in the preservation of peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region (cf. the episode of the American EP3 surveillance plane).
Finally, although the book's authors remain discreeta fact worth underliningabout the capacity of the United States to exert its influence on the course of events in China (p. 340), the China factor is too often conceived in an exclusively American way. It is understandable that the authors may wish to make a certain number of recommendationsmostly common sense and prudent onesto their government. But the future of China, as that of world peace, does not depend solely on the good health of Sino-US relations. For one thing, there remain more important (and more stable) relations for the United States, firstly with the European Union, and then with Japan and Russiaand the war against terrorism contributes to strengthen this trend. For another, China is enmeshed in a network of regional and international relations and interdependences that are increasingly diversified and that it would itself like to see more multipolar. Although this wish remains far from being realised, since the end of the Cold War and under the pressure of economic globalisation, relations between powers are today both more fluid and involve less conflict. That does not mean that China will not break out in a bellicose fever. But it does signify that, in a foreseeable future, this country will probably continue to maintain both an authoritarian regime whose liberalisation can certainly not be taken for granted and a foreign policy forever pushing its own advantage, often still managing risks that are more or less calculated, but in general knowing the point up to which it can go too far as long, that is, as others tell it.
Translated from the French original by Peter Brown