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Monday, November 16, 2009

Chinese Take Out

President Obama’s trip to China has been accompanied by the usual concerns about human rights abuses and the value of the Yuan that have troubled Sino-American relations for the past two decades. This trip has also raised a relatively new concern about China: that it is not pulling its weight on international problems. Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt of the International Crisis Group writes that China is a “global free-rider,” for failing to help the U.S. take action against Iran and North Korea. Over at the New York Times, China is similarly charged with needing to “play an even stronger international role,” including assisting the U.S. with the remaining two-thirds of the axis of evil.

The objection that China is free-riding is silly and myopic. To free ride is to fail to contribute to a public good that you enjoy. In order for China to free-ride on the proliferation issues in North Korea and Iran, China has to believe that a change in the status quo would significantly damage their national interests, which is not at all clear. On Iran, the Times notes, China “seems more concerned about its own voracious energy needs, and Iran’s ability to satisfy them.” So China is looking out for its own national interests, perhaps to the detriment of other states in the international system? Would other states dare to do this?

When Nixon made the bold opening with China nearly three decades ago, he hoped that the Chinese would exert pressure on the North Vietnamese to help bring an end to the war in Vietnam that would benefit the United States. The Chinese, with little to gain from an end to the war, did not fulfill Nixon’s wishes. The premise of free-rider arguments is that China and the United States want the same things in their foreign policies, when, in fact, they do not. Thus, there is no free-riding. [Climate change is a different issue, but unfortunately, the United States is not much better.]

The underlying concept here is soft power and the United States general inability to use it effectively with the Chinese. The Obama administration needs to get China to “want what we want.” This moves outside the realm of international bargaining (and discussions of American’s limited leverage over the Chinese) to focus on how China should perceive the international system. Increasing Chinese significance in the international system will change Chinese interests, but not necessarily cause them to align with the United States. Unfortunately, over the medium term it seems unlikely that China’s interests will mirror those of the United States due to economic, domestic political, cultural, and geo-strategic reasons.