Is dealing with China about to get a lot harder?

This piece in the NYT over the weekend really caught my eye, because it reminds me of this paper that Toby and I finished a draft of not too long ago. Before getting to that, however, the meat of the story about China is that Hu Jintao may not be as “in charge” as he’d like–and as we’d like–him to be, what with the PLA running what is oftentimes its own foreign policy and state-owned enterprises flouting nominal concessions over stopping the piracy of American technology and media. The Times attributes some of this to the impending leadership change (see here for a discussion of those in North Korea), but if current premier doesn’t have enough institutional control over the military when it comes to making foreign policy, then new leadership may or may not change that. The basic problem is that the folks that Hu needs to comply with the deals he strikes internationally don’t feel that they need to, because Hu can’t do much about it. The result?

Divided leadership has made it harder to resolve disputes with China, much less strike grand bargains like the reopening of relations between the two countries under Mao.

I think they’ve got an important point here, and it’s got some interesting implications for what to expect and how we might handle China down the road.Short of something changing–e.g., the emergence in 2012 of a leader able to bring disparate institutional interests back under personal control, like Deng or even Mao were (sometimes) able to do–then we’re probably going to deal with several problems in Chinese foreign policy:

  1. follow-through on promised deals will be slow, if not ineffective
  2. stopping disagreements, which would require reining in factions like the Army, will be enormously difficult (in fact, while my paper with Toby applies to the problem of avoiding and ending wars, it applies to any situation where the leaders of each side prefer an agreement but at least one has a hawkish faction at home that’s hard to control)
  3. the problem of how to help Hu or his successor consolidate enough authority to make progress

Now the last part is tricky, of course, if only because the cure might be worse than the disease: in general, are we better off with a China of diffuse or concentrated political power? My inclination is to lean towards the latter, because it’s not like the system is operating with a lot of veto points that stand in the way of major policy change…it seems more like they’re operating largely independently in some kind of grand, unintended, and incoherent logroll, and that’s hardly pluralistic or polyarchic in any useful sense.

So what’s the US to do? Frankly, I’m not sure there’s much we want to can do about this, short of looking like one great power overtly meddling in the politics of another, something we shied away from during Soviet times and even during the collapse of the USSR. (Gaddis’ old IS piece on the “Long Peace” is still a great source for the logic behind great powers, not matter how little they trust one another, leaving the other’s succession processes alone.) One option for ending disagreements is to stop asking for so much, recognizing that Hu can’t deliver the goods, but that’s likely more dangerous politically worse than doing nothing, so one possibility is to try and tie concessions on the things that the PLA or business interests control to our own concessions on what they want. We’d still have to deal with Hu, but linking these issues might allow Hu to go to these factions with a little more leverage to reign in, say, military threats in the South China Sea, currency policies, and patent protections by noting that the Americans have linked the issues.

Would it work? Who knows? Issues can certainly be de-linked, but on some level we’d be dealing more directly with these disparate factions with Hu as middle man…and as long as he looks like the deal-maker, maybe he can regain some more of the authority his predecessors enjoyed. It may not be such a bad thing, because military disputes or crises in which the leadership can’t rein in the military aren’t the kind of conflicts I’d like to be thinking about for the future…

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