American politicians have been worrying about China again – and so they should. The trouble is they've been worrying about China in the wrong way. While various Republican and Democrat bigwigs have been using their respective national conventions to claim that only they can save America from being overhauled by the once and future superpower across the Pacific, the real threat is not Chinese expansion, but a Chinese implosion.
It is a case that’s well-made by Minxin Pei in an article for Foreign Policy. America, he argues, has a history of fretting about competitors which then promptly crash out of the race:
- “For the last 40 years, Americans have lagged in recognizing the declining fortunes of their foreign rivals. In the 1970s they thought the Soviet Union was 10 feet tall – ascendant even though corruption and inefficiency were destroying the vital organs of a decaying communist regime. In the late 1980s, they feared that Japan was going to economically overtake the United States, yet the crony capitalism, speculative madness, and political corruption evident throughout the 1980s led to the collapse of the Japanese economy in 1991.”
China, Pei argues, is beset by all manner of immediate problems – “a persistent slowdown of economic growth, a glut of unsold goods, rising bad bank loans, a bursting real estate bubble, and a vicious power struggle at the top,” but also various underlying weaknesses:
- “…an overbearing state squandering capital and squeezing out the private sector, systemic inefficiency and lack of innovation, a rapacious ruling elite interested solely in self-enrichment and the perpetuation of its privileges, a woefully underdeveloped financial sector, and mounting ecological and demographic pressures.”
Western fear of China, rather than for China, could backfire:
- “Sadly, this gap between the American perception of Chinese strength and the reality of Chinese weakness has real adverse consequences. Beijing will use China-bashing rhetoric and the strengthening U.S. defense posture in East Asia as ironclad evidence of Washington's unfriendliness. The Communist Party will blame the United States for its economic difficulties and diplomatic setbacks. Xenophobia could become an asset for a regime struggling for survival in hard times.”
Of course, China has enormous underlying strengths as well as weaknesses, but it will need all of those resources just to hold itself together.
The fact that the current Chinese system of government may not last forever is a point that’s worth bearing in mind. Though there’s never been any shortage of western commentators ready to talk down the future prospects of liberal democracy, the thing that more usually surprises our foreign policy establishments is the collapse of authoritarian systems.
Whether in Latin America, the Soviet Bloc or the Middle East, the so-called experts always seem to be startled when tyrants fall. Perhaps they should remember what Winston Churchill had to say on the matter:
- “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”