War of Wills

This week's long-awaited summit between Hu Jintao and George W. Bush in Washington has sent diplomatic sherpas in both countries into overdrive. One last-minute development was a visit to Beijing last week by Washington's assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Thomas A. Shannon Jr. His was the first-ever China trip by the State Department's point man on Latin America. And his message to Beijing was blunt: tread carefully in America's backyard, where China has lately been cultivating economic and military ties. "We want to ensure that China respects the larger consensus forged [in Latin

America]: that democracy is the system that the region wants to have and supports," said spokeswoman Jan Edmonson. Congressman Dan Burton, the Republican chairman of a congressional subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, framed U.S. concerns about Beijing's intentions even more bluntly: "It's extremely important that we don't let a potential enemy of the United States become a dominant force in this part of the world."

China and the United States have had a complex but cordial relationship since George W. Bush was elected in 2000. And when Hu and Bush meet, the cordial side will be on grand display--handshakes, a 21-gun salute and lofty rhetoric about "harmony and cooperation" between the two countries. Hu will arrive in D.C. humming the mantra of China's "peaceful development." Bush will nod his approval and gently press his counterpart about trade policy.

But behind the smiles, say experts, it's becoming increasingly difficult for China and the United States to mask profound differences in their approaches to the world. While Bush has spent the past five years fighting global terrorism, promoting the idea of democracy and threatening to topple oppressive despots, the unelected Hu has set a more pragmatic--some might say amoral--course for China's foreign policy. In places where Beijing has sought to lock up natural resources, in particular oil, that's meant China has adopted the role of kind uncle for many of the same rogue regimes that Bush loathes.

Even more troubling from Washington's perspective is that many countries are increasingly more comfortable with China's morally neutral approach, even in Europe. And to some less-developed nations its booming statist economy is ample evidence that Washington's preaching about the need for liberalizing reforms is hogwash. "There's definitely a subterranean collision of ideas," says Michael Green, a former Asia specialist on the National Security Council. "It's important that we are aware of it and don't let it become a cold-war-like confrontation."

Could this be the real clash of civilizations? For half a decade, the U.S. government has been preoccupied with Islamic fundamentalism. That threat is real. But even as the U.S. military continues to battle radicals in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington and Beijing seem to be engaged in a quiet but comprehensive war of wills--over trade policy, human rights, globalization and other issues--that could greatly affect what sort of governance systems emerge in the developing world. While car bombings grab the headlines, it's at least arguable that long-term, mild-mannered Chinese leaders like Hu Jintao pose a greater challenge to America's vision for the wider world.

Certainly, conservatives in the Bush administration are coming to that conclusion. Witness Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's alarm at China's rapid military buildup, or simmering congressional frustration with America's $200 billion bilateral trade deficit with China, as well as deep differences over democracy, freedom of expression and religious belief. The Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review, released in February, identified China as a potential threat to U.S. interests. This all portends more, not less, friction with China in the years ahead. "The White House wants to establish democracy everywhere," says Kenneth Lieberthal, a China scholar and National Security Council official during the Clinton administration. "That [concept] is anathema to the Chinese, because it's effectively saying: 'Our goal is to overthrow you, to change your system'."

U.S. officials call that interpretation too literal. "The process of ending tyranny could take generations," explains one. Still, Chinese officials might be excused for feeling confused about U.S. aims. The Clinton administration made "engagement" with China a strategic priority. Then, in the early years of the Bush administration, the policy became to "integrate" China into the global community, through membership in entities like the World Trade Organization. That's been done. The latest U.S. policy shift, articulated by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, is to persuade China to become a "responsible stakeholder" in the global system--meaning that Beijing should go beyond passive commitments and actively work with established powers on solving nettlesome international issues.

Raising the bar in that way almost guarantees friction. China can't walk in lockstep with America on issues like promoting democracy or rapid deregulation because it's in a different stage of development--and temperamentally prefers neither to preach nor be preached to. As Harry Harding, director of research and analysis at the Eurasia Group, puts it: "The game has changed, and we're taking a tough line with China on a [new] set of issues." Harding says, for example, that the United States would like China to more actively promote the WTO's Doha Round of trade-liberalization talks--reminding other developing countries that they can benefit from globalization, as it has. But so far Beijing has refrained from proselytizing about free trade.

China poses a singular challenge to the United States, Harding says, because it's becoming a "multidimensional power." Russia, during the cold war, was a challenge if not a threat to the United States, but in only one way: it had potent military capabilities. Its economy was very weak. Japan, in the 1980s, became a serious economic competitor to America but was not a military power. China, in contrast, is growing strong both economically and militarily, and increasingly using its "soft power" for its own geostrategic goals.

Without intending to do so, that has had the effect of blocking the spread of free trade and political freedom--ostensible U.S. goals--in some of the more dangerous parts of the world. The Chinese-made weapons wielded by the rebels who attacked the capital of Chad last week are thought to have been provided by the government of Sudan, an oil-rich Chinese client. (Sudan has denied supporting the fighters.) By granting $2 billion in loans to similarly oil-rich Angola, Beijing, according to some critics, has eased pressure on the government to improve economic transparency. Zimbabwe's notorious President Robert Mugabe lingers in power, propped up by Chinese loans and military aid, money meant to secure access to gold and platinum supplies. "People say Mugabe is a dictator. But whose judgment is final?" says He Wenping, an Africa specialist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "Mugabe is an elected president and we should recognize that."

That studiously nonjudgmental attitude has also slowed progress in Burma, which is so dependent on Beijing's largesse that its economy might collapse without it. In Mandalay, Chinese money has bankrolled shopping malls, the new Great Wall Hotel and sprawling property developments that have pushed impoverished Burmese residents to the outskirts of the city. Chinese officials coddle the junta not only because of Burma's strategic position on the Indian Ocean and near the Strait of Malacca--through which 80 percent of China's oil imports pass--but also because of an intrinsic desire not to put the kind of pressure on other countries that could legitimately be turned against Beijing. "China perhaps is the one country that can actually influence [the regime] to take steps towards national reconciliation and democracy," says Rizali Ismail, the United Nations' former special envoy to Burma. "But they've fallen back on their position of noninterference. To be frank, the U.N. is disappointed."

Iran is perhaps the pre-eminent example of China's amoral pragmatism butting up against Washington's "freedom agenda." The Bush administration by its nature sees Iran as an "evil" regime. Beijing, long a scourge of human-rights advocates itself, views Iran mostly as a source for petroleum and natural gas, and has signed nearly $100 billion worth of energy deals with the country. With Washington pushing for strong international action against Tehran--which last week announced it had "joined the nuclear club" by successfully enriching uranium--that relationship is an obvious stumbling block. China last week sent an envoy to Tehran to try to ward off the prospect of economic sanctions, which China opposes.

Beijing has made inroads even in democratic countries with traditional U.S. ties, such as Brazil. Latin America's exports to China have skyrocketed--up 600 percent in the past five years. Conversely, nearly half of the mainland's direct foreign investment abroad now goes to Latin America. "Never have I seen the rise of another power outside the region, other than the now vanished Soviet Union, begin to rival the dominant U.S. presence. But that's precisely what China is beginning to do," says retired American ambassador V. Manuel Rocha, who now advises Latin American firms considering a plunge into the China market.

These countries are attracted to China's live-and-let-live attitude--and its success at fueling high growth rates through central planning--at least as much as its money. In the 1980s and 1990s, Latin America paid heed to what came to be called the Washington Consensus--the IMF doctrine of market economics, privatization, deregulation and trade liberalization that was supposed to be a catalyst for growth. For complex reasons (many related to institutional and political failures in the region), the Washington Consensus hasn't worked. Now leaders across the developing world, from Caracas to Khartoum to Katmandu, speak favorably of the "Beijing consensus" as a welcome alternative to U.S. diktats about reform. "China's had amazing growth rates, and people want to know how Beijing did it: successful economic reform without political reform. People are paying attention," says sinologist David Zweig at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

This is more than a loss of face for the United States. Beijing's armed forces, for instance, have exchanged dozens of high-level military delegations with Latin American countries since 2004. In testimony on Capitol Hill last year, U.S. Army Gen. Bantz Craddock, head of the Miami-based Southern Command, contrasted rising Chinese influence in the region to a Bush administration policy of slashing military aid to several Latin governments. If the trend continues, Craddock warned, Washington could forfeit "the opportunity to ... teach them about [our] values and ideals and beliefs in democratic institutions." Last week the Southern Command sent an aircraft-carrier group to the Caribbean for military exercises, designed to underscore Washington's commitment to the region and to allay concerns about perceived U.S. "passivity" in the face of China's Latin American campaign.

American officials scoff at the notion that Beijing's moral neutrality has international appeal. "When I talk to people around the world, I don't hear people say, 'I love the Chinese vision.' In fact the Chinese really don't have a vision beyond peace and noninterference in others' affairs," says one Bush administration official, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not cleared to speak on the record. More important, they argue that Beijing's emphasis on noninterference is more illusion than ideology--and is untenable if China hopes to be a strong voice in world affairs. The Hu doctrine is for each country to find its own path--"crossing the river by groping the stones," to quote a Chinese proverb. But, notes the Eurasia Group's Harding, "our concern about Zimbabwe and Venezuela and Nigeria is not just abstract moral principle. There are political risks, and China is subject to them too. They are not immune."

For its part, Beijing would argue that it's not seeking to ride into battle against Washington, nor to ram any kind of doctrine down the throats of developing-country leaders--quite the opposite. But at the same time, Hu and other leaders strongly favor a multipolar world: "China thinks it's impossible to have only one model for development and democracy," says Xu Jinghu, head of the Foreign Ministry's Africa Department. That ensures a degree of continuing friction with the United States. It will be up to Hu and Bush to smooth out some of those rough edges before this quiet battle of ideas becomes more open and adversarial.