What will US Vice President Biden find in China?

Author: Evan A Feigenbaum, CFR

In a recent post, my CFR colleague, Liz Economy asks: ‘What will Vice President Biden find in China?’ I thought I’d try out my own response to this very direct question.

First, Biden will find a China whose rise depends on economic growth but whose growth model is no longer sustainable. Bluntly put, China’s leaders know that their capital-intensive, export-oriented approach is delivering diminishing returns and threatens to become a major political vulnerability for the government. The global economic crisis provided clear evidence that China’s export-driven economy is vulnerable to dips in demand in the rest of the world. Meanwhile, its dependence on investment has introduced distortions and imbalances into the Chinese economy.

This matters to the United States because Washington has spent years urging China to ‘rebalance’ its economy. China produces much and consumes little, while the US consumes much and wants to produce more (in part to sell to China). The bottom line is this: Beijing lacks the political stomach to undertake the toughest rebalancing steps (for instance, a rapid appreciation of the renminbi). But, for self-interested reasons, its leaders are committed to rebalancing and will take some steps that are in the US interest. And the ongoing US debt crisis may even create some additional incentives for China to rebalance elements of its economic strategy.

Second, Biden will find a China whose social and political fabric is fraying. A spate of headlines about truckers’ strikes and ethnic unrest shows just how brittle China’s polity is. The country is beset with rural unrest and wildcat strikes, and the challenges are growing (if you need more evidence, see the angry public reaction to China’s recent high-speed rail crash).

This should concern Biden and the US for two reasons. It means China’s leaders are preoccupied domestically and will be (mostly) uninterested in what the US has to say. At the same time, China’s leaders will probably dismiss US calls for political reform with even more vigour than usual. The regime is likely to meet challenges to its stability with a mix of carrots and sticks. Beijing (and local officials) will co-opt some demands of the discontented, not least by hiking wages and funding social housing. But they will also use paramilitary and police capabilities to crack down hard as incidents arise.

Third, Biden will find a China whose cautious leaders prefer incremental steps to bold action. Beijing is facing a litany of development and social challenges against the backdrop of a cacophony of voices and views. And some of these voices represent entrenched domestic interests that are deeply invested in the status quo. As conservative technocrats, China’s leaders tend to split the difference between these competing groups so that they have a strong bias toward incremental policy change that may persist beyond 2012 when China’s next leaders take office.

For the US, this means that domestic Chinese allies will be essential if it is to elicit cooperation from China. Foreign pressure generally only works when it aligns with the objectives of one or another of the interest groups Chinese leaders seek to balance. This also suggests that while China’s commitment to rebalancing is real, this process of rebalancing will move more deliberately than Washington would like. For Beijing, an uncertain global environment, combined with inflationary pressures and a leadership transition at home, dictates caution over boldness. And this kind of incrementalism simply will not mesh with American expectations.

Fourth, Biden will find a China that is being asked to assume global responsibilities but is very reluctant to do so. China is a ‘stakeholder’ at many of the top tables of international relations. It is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a WTO and G20 member, has a seat on the Financial Stability Board, and is a signatory to protocols on everything from ozone depletion to chemical weapons. But China has proven itself to be a reluctant stakeholder, often content to continue taking a free ride on the provision of public goods by others.

The US should expect China to push back hard against steadily-building international expectations that it assume some of these responsibilities. China will continue to insist that, as a developing country with its own litany of challenges, it cannot be expected to shoulder ‘unreasonable’ burdens. And that will mean growing resentment of China as many argue that Beijing is punching below its weight. This, in turn, will feed a parallel process of resentment in Beijing, as some Chinese may argue that the country is punching above its weight by supporting global growth in the face of a slowdown in the US and austerity in Europe.

And finally, Biden will find a China where security hawks preen and posture. For some in China’s strategic class, recent events have reinforced breathtaking conclusions about China’s ‘rise’ and America’s ‘decline’. Many are confident in China’s growing strength and want to test what Beijing’s growing weight might yield. They relish the opportunity to make Washington work harder for Chinese support of shared objectives.

The US and China share more interests than, say, ten years ago. But translating that common stake into complementary policies will remain elusive unless the two countries’ threat assessments begin to converge. And even when Beijing does share America’s sense of threat, countervailing interests too often obstruct cooperation. Combine that with other tensions in the relationship — not least in Asia, on everything from US arms sales to Taiwan to the South China Sea — and the US and China are likely to face a period of greater security tension.

Evan A Feigenbaum is Adjunct Senior Fellow for East, Central, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

An earlier version of this article was published here on the Council on Foreign Relations Asia Unbound blog.