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The German Marshall Fund of the US and The Centre Asie Ifri, held a joint seminar on 15 June on “Responding to China’s Rise: Balancing Hard and Soft Power”. The presentation by Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute was very disturbing. Although The AEI is ‘neocon’ in philosophy, I fear that much of what he said expresses the views of a large number of Americans.

His starting point is that history teaches us that countries when they become very powerful, eventually use that power through military aggression. He was careful not to assert this with China but the concept was implicit. The development of China’s military capabilities was motivated by its ambition to be a great power and couldn’t be explained adequately by defensive intent, as in the of other great powers in history.

His assessment of China was US-centric. China needs the US and in some areas the US needs China. The Chinese are different from us, rather than we are different from each other. China has not made the progress we expected. He also believes that China is driven by ambitions, not just interests -when a country’s capabilities grow, so does the scale of its ambitions and its conception of its interests. China is surely driven by one main aim – maintaining economic growth which is essential for social and political stability and the maintenance in power of the Communist Party.

Schmitt asserted that China has not politically reformed nor moved towards democracy, ie western democracy. I am a deep believer in democracy but fear that the current form of western democracy leaves much to be desired: is it really “government of the people by the people for the people” (Abraham Lincoln). Our political systems have failed to keep pace with the huge societal changes and the communications revolution. Would you wish on others the US system, or what is currently happening in the Netherlands and Belgium?

The lack of improvement in human rights in China was deplored. To convince others on democracy and human rights, we must first set an example. But we have Guantamano, extraordinary rendition and a media with an inflated and destructive contribution to society.

We will not make progress with the Chinese while we only see things from our own point of view. We must try to understand how the Chinese see a particular issue and in what context. We need to seek convergence of policies, but this means making the policies move towards each other, not just making the Chinese policy move towards ours.

Schmitt sees aggressive intent in China’s military build-up. How should China react to being surrounded by US fixed and floating bases? The US has a military presence in 130 countries.

The biggest concern is that, if the US treats China as hostile, it could become a self-fulfilling prophesy. His idea of Europe and the US gaining leverage by working together on trade could harden Beijing’s attitude to market access. The only ‘weapon’ is trade restrictions on Chinese imports, but this would mean retaliation and protectionism. This would damage China but also the West.

Western strategy should be based on true multilateralism, a dialogue of equals and a desire to achieve policy convergence.

It is a relief that Gary Schmitt’s views are not widely shared in Europe.
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