The result of discord among civilians has been a partial remilitarization of politics and policy in the Chinese capital. Senior officers are now acting independently of civilian officials, are openly criticizing them and are making pronouncements on areas once considered the exclusive province of diplomats.
The implications of these internal changes are, obviously, large: China’s flag officers want to use their new-found power. “China’s military spending is growing so fast that it has overtaken strategy,” said Huang Jing of Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy. “The young officers are taking control of strategy and it is like young officers in Japan in the 1930s. They are thinking what they can do, not what they should do.”
To make matters worse, this leadership transition was occurring while the Chinese economy stumbled. GDP growth rates, beginning in the middle of 2011, began to falter. In recent quarters, they have not been in the high single digits, as Beijing’s National Bureau of Statistics claims. Electricity production figures, manufacturing surveys, price indexes and corporate results, among other indicators, point to an economy growing at about 3%. Moreover, the economy is beginning to choke on debt incurred to build “ghost cities” and produce unsellable inventory.
Why is China’s slowdown important? The Communist Party for three decades based its legitimacy primarily on the continual delivery of prosperity; without prosperity, the only remaining basis for legitimacy is nationalism. Nationalism in turn is causing leaders to increase friction with China’s neighbors and the U.S.
There is a third factor, which could define this decade, also contributing to Chinese’s troubling trajectory. Our engagement of China has, unfortunately, reinforced the worst tendencies in Beijing by inadvertently creating a set of perverse incentives. With the best of intentions, we rewarded irresponsible conduct in the hope the Chinese would change. No matter how they continued in their ways, we failed to hold them to account. In these circumstances, as we kept providing incentives for unacceptable behavior, Beijing predictably became less cooperative and more assertive.
Worse, the less and less the Chinese exhibited desire to engage us, the more and more we felt the need to engage them. It is evident from Beijing’s recent actions that the old approach toward China is not working. If we do not begin to change our policies, our indulgence may end up creating the very thing we have desperately sought to avoid: an incurably aggressive Chinese state.
RONALD REAGAN opposed the Soviet Union because he told us the form of its government mattered: that it prevented Moscow from evolving to better policies and serving as a reliable partner. We need to understand that the form of China’s one-party state matters too.
The risk of getting China wrong, as we are now doing, is that an aggressive regime can undermine the institutions of free societies and take down the multilateral framework built after the Second World War. The Chinese have learned all the wrong lessons in recent years, but we have yet to adjust our approach. We have, with the best of intentions, created the conditions for the rise of a militantly hostile state.
Originally published at the Goldstone Institute.