America's view of China is fogged by liberal ideas

Op-Ed Featured in Financial Times

Written by: Christopher Layne, University Distinguished Professor, Robert M. Gates Chair in National Security, Professor of International Affairs

Do the events that led to the outbreak of the first world war carry lessons for the Sino-American relationship? A century ago it was the ascent of Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm I that unsettled the world; today, a rising China is roiling east Asia. Then, as now, domestic politics on both sides played a role – one that is too easily neglected.

Why did Britain and Germany – linked by trade, dynastic ties, culture and religion – find themselves at war in August 1914? In part, as historian Paul Kennedy has argued, it was because London’s liberal ideology contributed to its perception of a growing German threat.

Filtered through liberalism’s lens, Germany looked militarist, autocratic, mercantilist, and statist – and contempt for the country’s political culture added to London’s disquiet. When the war began, it quickly came to be seen as a liberal crusade against “Prussianism”.

In this respect, today’s Sino-American rivalry resembles the pre-1914 Anglo-German antagonism. The speed of China’s growth worries US policy makers, as do the geopolitical implications of its economic transformation. Across the American political spectrum, China’s success is attributed to its failure to play by the rules of free trade – for instance, its habit of manipulating the value of its currency and engaging in industrial espionage. Market-oriented liberalism is the dominant ideology in the US and, as in pre-1914 Britain, it shapes policy makers’ image of their supposed adversary.

American leaders view China as a nation whose undemocratic political system raises doubts about both the scope of its foreign policy ambitions and its trustworthiness as a diplomatic partner. Moreover, China’s combination of political authoritarianism and state-directed capitalism causes unease because it challenges the supposed universality of the American model of liberal democracy and free market capitalism.

Princeton University professor Aaron Friedberg says that for Americans, “the success of a mainland [Chinese] regime that blends authoritarian rule with market-driven economics is an affront.” For members of the US foreign policy elite, the Chinese threat is not so much geopolitical as ideological.

Powerful external and domestic forces are putting the US and China on the road to confrontation. China aspires to be the regional hegemon in east (and southeast) Asia. The US – the incumbent hegemon, having dominated the region since 1945 – is blocking its path.

Yet America’s predominance in east Asia contributes little to the security of a nation whose geography and unsurpassed military capabilities would anyway make it close to invulnerable.

The US is the most secure great power in history – even more so, if you factor in the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons. The true cause of American insecurity is not an imminent encroachment on its territory, but the risk that US alliances – especially with Japan – will draw it into a regional conflict.

The US wants to maintain its east Asian dominance to keep the region’s markets open to American goods and its people open to liberal ideas. China threatens the open international which America’s security is wrongly believed to depend.

The liberal assumptions embedded in American foreign policy put the US at odds with China, and also heighten Beijing’s distrust of Washington’s intentions and ambitions. The spiral of animosity that threatens to culminate in a confrontation between the two countries is in large part a creation of American policy.

As China’s rises, Washington has a last clear chance to avoid the looming Sino-American conflict. This would entail making real concessions on Taiwan and on China’s territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. It would also involve a commitment that Washington would not interfere in China’s internal affairs. America’s political culture – based on exceptionalism, liberal ideology, and openness – is a big obstacle to coming to terms with a resurgent China. So is the fact that the foreign policy elite remains wedded to American primacy, and refuses to accept that this will inevitably slip away because of the relative decline of US power.

History is also a problem. US policy makers are quick to invoke what they take to be the lessons of the 1930s while overlooking the causes of the first world war. As Johns Hopkins professor David Calleo observed, the what we should learn from the outbreak of that war “is not so much the need for vigilance against aggressors, but the ruinous consequences of refusing reasonable accommodation to upstarts.”

If the US wants to avoid a future conflict with China, it cannot allow liberal ideology to obstruct a reconciliation with an evermore powerful China. That is the real lesson of 1914.

Christopher Layne is a University Distinguished Professor, Robert M. Gates Chair in National Security, and professor of international affairs at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. His fields of interest are international relations theory, great power politics, US foreign policy, transatlantic security relations, and grand strategy. To read more about Christopher Layne, please visit his faculty bio.