Taming the dragon | Business Standard News

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Getting China Wrong is a succinct analysis of US policies towards China, what motivated them and how they failed. Besides discussing the vexed issues, it also prescribes the path forward

Getting China Wrong, Book Review

Author: Aaron L Friedberg

Publisher: Polity Press

Pages: 246

Price: Rs 3,477

With the rise of China, there has been a need to revisit and reinvent the way the United States and the West along with the rest of the world interacts and perceives it. China-US relations have run a full circle since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under the command of the Communist Party of China (CPC). China has drastically mutated in the last 70 years to become an economic and military powerhouse and the US and Europe have played a key role in this process.

Getting China Wrong is a succinct analysis of how and where the United States and West went wrong in understanding China. It is a nuanced account that examines US policies towards China, what motivated them and how they failed to achieve their desired ends. What sets the book apart is that the author also provides a detailed process and policies that can be employed today to nudge China in the right direction.

One major policy that was strongly supported by the US towards China was of normalising relations and engagement. Supporters of this policy argued that doing so would bring China into the fold of the international system and make it a responsible player. This argument was predicated on the belief that the liberalisation of the Chinese economy would follow the liberalisation of the political system and that the lure of the global markets would be enough to push China towards political change. What has actually happened in the past four decades is just the opposite. The author rightly asserts that, “Instead of a liberal and cooperative partner, China has become an increasingly wealthy and powerful competitor, repressive at home and aggressive abroad.”

China’s move towards economic reform by opening up its economy to foreign investment under Deng Xiaoping was perceived to be an opportunity. Washington also hoped that this opening up would help in the spread of ideas of freedom, democracy, human rights and strengthen civil society. No surprise, then, that the Tiananmen Square protests, which were based on ideas that China considers to be foreign and alien to its domestic realities, gave the US some hope of an impending change. The protests were a major challenge to the supremacy and existence of the CPC. But Deng’s military suppression of the protests put to rest any hope of a “liberal” or compassionate approach towards political changes. 1989 also highlighted that the CPC was committed to staying in power and economic reforms were a tool and a path, which it considered to be necessary for its own benefit. As Aaron L Friedberg says, “It is difficult to escape the conclusion that any chance of China evolving gradually into a Western-style liberal democracy died at Tiananmen”.

The policy of engagement derived its support from the highly optimistic strategists and business lobbies in the United States motivated by the attractiveness of the untapped Chinese market. “Western theorists had predicted that development would create complexities, stresses, interests, and demands that would be difficult to manage in a top-down system. …Chinese policymakers, by contrast, looked for methods of alleviating or containing rising societal pressures, deflecting them in ways that strengthened the regime rather than weakening it,” Dr Friedberg writes. Thus, he rightly argues that the time has come to reassess the gains of the engagement policy.

That policy has helped China achieve its targets of economic growth, which has sustained a steady military development and modernisation. Backed by a strong economy and military, China today is becoming increasingly assertive and highly nationalistic. It is accepted today that China under Xi Jinping has abandoned Deng’s dictum “hide your capabilities and bide your time”. Beijing is ready to flex its muscles and dictate the direction of global policies. It is now developing a new narrative of how the values and ideas promoted by the West are not applicable to China. It is using its newfound position to build a narrative that supports it. “Emboldened by what they see on balance as an increasingly favorable strategic situation, China’s leaders are now trying to reshape the world in ways they hope will render it less threatening to the CCP and more conducive to the indefinite prolongation of its rule,” Dr Friedberg says.

With the rise of Chinese nationalism and assertiveness, there is an urgent need to revisit the policies that the world has adopted towards Beijing. Engagement will not be enough. There has been some acknowledgement of this need and some changes and push in that direction. The Covid-19 pandemic and the way Beijing handled the situation has intensified this debate. Getting China Wrong is written to provide a new direction to the existing policies of the world towards China.

The book should be a must-read for any scholar and student trying to understand China and the evolution of US-China relations. It stands out as a book that does more than just discuss the existing issues. It provides a historical backdrop and juxtaposes it with the current state of affairs and prescribes the path which the US and other democratic countries should adopt in order to manage rising Chinese aggression and assertiveness.

The reviewer is assistant professor, OP Jindal Global University

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