China Takes on the World

Already a commercial giant, China is aiming to be the world's next great power. Will that lead to a confrontation with the U.S.?

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Matias Costa

Chinese construction workers work on a structure that will be used during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

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But other aspects of China's rise are real and troubling. China is a one-party state, not a democracy. Some U.S. policymakers and business leaders like to say there is something inevitable about political change in China--that as China gets richer, its population will press for more democratic freedoms and its ruling élite, mindful of the need for change, will grant them. Could be. But China is becoming richer now, and if there is any sign of substantial political reform--or any sign that the absence of such reform is hurting China's economic growth--it is, to put it mildly, hard to find.

Does China's lack of democracy necessarily threaten U.S. interests? One answer to that question involves looking back to the cold war. The Soviet Union was not a democracy, and although the U.S. contested its power in all sorts of ways, American policymakers were content to live with the reality of Soviet strength in the hope (correct, as it turned out) that communism's appeal outside its borders would wither and Russia's political system would become more open. Is that how the U.S. should treat a nondemocratic China? In the forthcoming book The China Fantasy, James Mann, an experienced China watcher now at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, warns that living with a more powerful, nondemocratic Beijing would not be easy for the U.S. In crucial ways, the U.S. has less leverage over China than it ever had over the Soviet Union. China holds billions of dollars of U.S. government assets. American consumers have come to rely on cheap labor in China to provide goods at Wal-Mart's everyday low prices. The Soviet Union, by contrast, was an economic basket case: it had minimal foreign-exchange reserves and was desperate for U.S. and European high technology.

This lack of leverage over Chinese behavior may make for an uncomfortable future. Mann sees a time when a powerful China not only remains undemocratic but also sustains unpleasant regimes in power, as it does today in such nations as Zimbabwe and Burma. Such behavior could make the world a colder place for freedom. Green, the former National Security Council staff member, agrees that China "wants to build speed bumps on the road to political globalization and liberalization" and is "particularly against any attempt to spread democracy." Sandschneider, the German China expert, says the Chinese "talk about peace and cooperation and development, which sounds great to European ears--but underneath is a question of brutal competition for energy, for resources and for markets."

How can that competition be managed? And how can the U.S. and its allies convince the Chinese not to support rogue regimes? The key may be to identify more areas in which China's national interests align with the West's and where cooperation brings mutual benefits. China competes aggressively for natural resources. But as David Zweig and Bi Jianhai of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology argued in Foreign Affairs in 2005, it would make just as much sense for the U.S. and China--both gas guzzlers--to pool forces and figure out how to tap renewable sources of energy and conserve existing supplies. For a start, the U.S. could work to get China admitted into the International Energy Agency and the G-8, where such topics are debated.

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