Hawks v Liberals

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America doesn’t have a “China Strategy”. It has a “China Attitude”. That’s one of the problems with a liberal democracy. Long term planning is generally confined to short term election cycles, resulting in an ideological conflict between the “hawks” (who are usually more focused on threats and security) and the “liberals” (who are generally more interested in reform and change)

China joined the WTO in 2001, nearly 20 years ago. Over this period we have observed several US administrations with very different attitudes towards China:

  • The liberals in the Clinton administration (1993-2001) believed that, as China prospered and became wealthier, there would be internal pressure within China’s Communist Party to reform into a regime that started to look more like a western liberal democracy. It seems they didn’t read their history books!
  • The hawks in the Bush administration (2001-2009) were more focused on military action in the Middle East after the 911 terrorist attacks, leaving China under President Hu Jintao (2003- 2013) to progress a long term economic strategy without much international scrutiny or push back.
  • The liberals in the Obama administration (2009-2017) talked about making a “pivot” and “rebalance” towards Asia but, without bipartisan support, they were unable to develop a meaningful strategy. In the meantime, China under President Xi Jinping (from 2013) advanced China’s long term military and trade agenda with no meaningful resistance or objections from the US, and built long term economic and trade alliances within the Asia Pacific region, in central Asia and in continental Africa.
  • Since 2017, under President Trump, the hawks have returned to point out the threats and dangers of China’s long term ascendancy. This has created a knee jerk reaction from the President who, without economic success after a global pandemic, believes his re-election prospects will be enhanced by being “tough on China”. It remains to be seen what US policy towards China will emerge in the post Covid economy of 2021, and whether the hawks will have to give way to the liberals once again.

Meanwhile, China continues to pursue its long term strategy towards “the Chinese dream 2049” which was described in 2013 as “achieving the “Two 100s”: the material goal of China becoming a “moderately well-off society” by about 2020, the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, and the modernisation goal of China becoming a fully developed nation by about 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic”.

The “Two 100s”? – now that’s a long term strategy!


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