Whose Arms Will Embrace You? The United States and the Beijing Consensus

The United States is increasingly playing a game of subtle communication in the international arena. I suspect we had a passing glimpse of this at the 19th Session of the Human Rights Council, which gathered in Geneva last month. The question is: who is the United States talking to and what is it trying to say?

There has been much discussion about President Obama’s “Return to Asia” strategy, arising out of a 2009 speech during which he declared that as an Asia Pacific nation, the United States will seek to be more involved in the issues affecting the region.

There has been an equally vibrant discussion in policy and scholarly circles about the so-called Beijing Consensus, a term used to describe the Chinese government’s embrace of capitalism, while remaining autocratic. It is to these nations who have “bought into” the Beijing Consensus, that the United States is subtly and guardedly, but increasingly, speaking.

China’s President Hu Jintao shakes hands with Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sanya, Hainan province, April 10, 2008. Image by Reuters, courtesy Transcurrents. China’s President Hu Jintao shakes hands with Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sanya, Hainan province, April 10, 2008. Image by Reuters, courtesy Transcurrents.

The (B)end of History

With the end of the Cold War, it was widely assumed that capitalism, as well as the Western political system had carried the day. In 1992, Francis Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man, which argued that with the Soviet demise, we may be witnessing not only the end of the Cold War, but “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

As Stefan Halper points out in his excellent 2010 book The Beijing Consensus, Fukuyama’s argument “became the kernel for a broad political consensus in Washington” and was undergirded by the sentiment that it was the American political-economic system “that satisfied mankind’s basic want for both a say in the political process and the opportunity to get rich.”

In other words, politicians and policy makers in the United States argued that history had spoken, and declared a clear winner in the ideological battle of the day: democratic pluralism, free markets, and, most importantly, the necessary link between the two for the creation of a stable and prosperous society. The rise of China complicates the argument in a profound way, by demonstrating that this ‘necessary link’ between capitalism and liberalism is an illusion.

According to many scholars, in addition to everything else that it sells to the world, China is exporting a more corrosive idea that strikes at the heart of Western identity. China functions, says Halper, as “the world’s largest billboard advertisement for the new alternative of ‘going capitalist and staying autocratic’.” Beijing, in other words, has demonstrated that it is possible to “liberalize economically without surrendering to liberal politics.”

What Does China Want?

The true intentions behind China’s rise have been the subject of heated debate in academic and policy circles. Some state that China’s posturing reflects nothing more than its desire for economic progress, while others contend that the Chinese government has regional or global dominance in mind, with still others arguing that both perspectives are true.

Indeed, China’s economic needs are great. It must grow at a minimum of eight percent per year to maintain stability and provide jobs and housing to its diverse population. Failure to achieve this growth rate, Halper writes, “carries the risk of chaos – a nightmare in a country of 1.5 billion.” As such, China seeks to ensure that its economic standing is protected, and has sought to create a set of like minded regimes and strategic facilities across the region – the so-called String of Pearls. Through direct foreign aid, physical investments like the building of ports and highways, and the granting of low-interest infrastructure loans, China wants to ensure that regimes that govern these smaller states – in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa – remain friendly to China.

There is widespread agreement that the first and foremost purpose of China outward involvement is commercial. Similarly, China, as one of the world’s largest importers of oil, wants to ensure that energy lines between the Middle East and China continue to function unimpeded. Military strategists, however, worry that many of these ports could be used by China in the case of a military confrontation.

Before his tragic death last year, I was fortunate enough to have a long conversation with Jalal Alamgir, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, about the geopolitical complexities of China’s relationship with India, Sri Lanka, and the United States. When we spoke, he was, along with many others, not convinced that China’s ultimate goal was military aggression or even ensuring that China can counter India and the United States militarily. As he told me, “One thing that has been consistent in China’s policy is actually to temper its military aggressiveness. If you compare the nature of its military expansiveness or aggressiveness to its economic rise – yes, it’s been pumping a lot of money into its military equipment, hardware, and facilities, but it has maintained consistently a very non-confrontational approach, especially when it came to the bigger powers like the U.S. and India than it could have.”

From the Chinese perspective, according to Alamgir, India is not its primary competitor. Rather, China is more concerned about the United States and its support for countries on its periphery: Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Indian military commentators have also been careful to not portray China’s rise as military expansion.

According to Alamgir, Indian civilian commentators, however, have not been so careful. They seem to be convinced, he pointed out, that China will ultimately “ensure not only that it has access to physical facilities that one day it can turn into military bases, but also that it wants to encircle India with friendly regimes that are closer to China than they are to India. So, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Burma, Sri Lanka.”

It should be noted that China is one of the leading suppliers of arms to all of these countries. It is, in other words, through both military hardware and economic aid at concessionary rates that China keeps its ties to these countries strong. However, it is widely believed that it is too dependent on peaceful commercial ties to seriously consider military confrontation.

With respect to Sri Lanka, visits between the military brass in China and Sri Lanka have become quite regular. It is a strategic partnership that benefits both parties: Sri Lanka is in the middle of China’s sea lanes, and it makes sense for Sri Lanka to solidify closer ties with China, in case problems arose with India. It is also important to remember that Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka have had connections to terror incidents inside India, and Nepal has had connections to the Maoist insurgency. India, then, has reasons, if similar incidents recurred, to put these states through economic duress. They, in turn, benefit from a lifeline to China.

While China may not be interested in military aggression, it has, however, practiced a hands-off approach when dealing with regimes that have a less than stellar human rights record. Its support for regimes in Uzbekistan, Angola, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Iran, and others has proved distressing for the United States and other Western powers.

For many of these countries, China exists as what Halper has called a “path around the West” or as an “exit option” for states that have fallen out with the West. As Halper tells me, these states “accept the Beijing Consensus, which is that ‘we’ll invest in your country, we’ll extract your minerals, we’ll pay you very well. All you need to do is support us at the UN and the trade discussions on Taiwan, Tibet, and any question related to sovereignty.’ Those are the issues they require support on. If you do that, the Chinese are your friends.”

Human Rights

China’s hands-off approach to human rights violations in other countries largely stems from its very different conception of human rights itself. As Sinologists like Lucian Pye and others have noted, China’s concept of human rights emphasizes the culturally specific aspects of a country as well as the paternalistic nature of the state. As Sonny Lo, a political science professor at the University of Waterloo, told me, “China is willing to deal with countries whose human rights record is questioned by the West. The reason is, first, that China has its own conception of human rights and, second, China adopts the foreign policy of non-interference with the domestic affairs of other countries.”

Conceptions of human rights in the West, for example, emphasize individual rights as being supreme. In China, by stark contrast, it is believed that individual human rights have to be in accord with state rights. In other words, collective rights or the collective interests of the state are equally as important as individual rights. Individual rights in China, by most accounts, do not supersede the rights of the state. “In the West, we always emphasize individualism,” Lo pointed out, “China emphasizes a harmony of interests between individual rights and state interests. So the role of the state is very important in deciding the scope of rights of the individual. In Chinese tradition, the state confers the rights upon individuals whereas in the West, individuals themselves are endowed with their own rights. I think there are quite different assumptions.”

In Chinese tradition, Lo and others argue, the state has been traditionally paternalistic. It is the state that carves out the boundaries and the content of individual rights. The question arises, however, as to why China, even with its differing conception of human rights, does not seek to export it or apply it in the countries over which it has influence. Most authorities agree that China is trying to move away from its Maoist legacy, during which it was regarded as spreading communism throughout Southeast Asia. China today in no way wants to be seen as an expansionist state, or one forcibly spreading communism around the region.

Since the 1980s, China has been very careful to position itself as holding on to a principle of non-interference. “With the rise of China,” Lo argues, “the Chinese leadership is very concerned about a so-called ‘Chinese threat’ – a perception maintained by the United States and other countries – so the Chinese leadership is very keen to project an image of a peaceful rising China, rather than a threatening rising China.”

The Problem for America

The combination of these two elements in China – a different conception of human rights and a policy of non-interference – has many consequences. One consequence, Halper writes, is that “China does business with the good, the bad, and the ugly – as long as they pay.” The other, more significant, consequence is, as mentioned above, a not-so-subtle blow to Western Enlightenment identity itself. Chinese positioning on the geopolitical landscape, according to some scholars, calls into question the inevitable and necessary relationship between free market capitalism and liberal democracy.

Once the fissure is made plain, it takes a lot of effort to convince states that the two shattered pieces actually belong together. Many states would rather not be harangued by the West about human rights abuses if they can help it. If at the same time they can achieve economic prosperity by building alliances with countries that are indifferent, or at least do not interfere, in the realm of human rights, then that is indeed a bonus.

It does not help matters that the American “brand” has taken quite a beating around the world. The controversial ventures into Afghanistan and Iraq have stained the moral credibility of the United States, has weakened the country economically and, perhaps most importantly, made it clear that democratic pluralism cannot be applied universally without understanding cultural and historical particularities.

Accusations of American hypocrisy on the international stage have also caused a decline in its brand around the world. In the 1990s, for example, both Congress and the State Department expressed a commitment to ensure that American funds did not trickle into the coffers of autocratic regimes with poor human rights records. This changed, however, with the events of September 11, 2001. Almost overnight, countries, even autocratic ones, were eligible for U.S. aid and support if they offered to help in the global war on terror. Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Equatorial Guinea are cases often brought up by critics of Washington. As the American image – one dedicated to both economic progress and international human rights – weakened, it quickly found that pressuring states about their human rights records resulted in resentment and not-so-veiled snickers.

A case in point was Sri Lanka. Protests erupted in the capital city of Colombo as discussions and negotiations began regarding the U.S.-led resolution at last month’s session of the UNHRC. A key theme evident throughout the protests was that the United States did not have the moral authority to lecture Sri Lanka about its human rights record. A memorable photograph that circulated on the internet showed a young man holding a sign that read, “Dear US, UN, et al. Please wipe your own arse first.”

Such perceived interference in the domestic affairs of a country like Sri Lanka has no doubt helped to solidify the relationship between Colombo and Beijing. Indeed, according to sources at the UNHRC sessions, the Sri Lankan lobbying effort included the Chinese government, and Chinese officials often accompanied Sri Lankan officials when seeking the support of specific countries leading up to the vote. Of course, countries working with and supporting each other in the international arena isn’t news. However, China’s willingness to work with the “good, the bad, and the ugly” creates a kind of bifurcation of international relations where economic incentives and threats lose significance.

These are not abstract fears, but ones with mounting evidentiary support. According to Richard Gowan and Franziska Brantner, authors of a report on European power at the United Nations, the West is indeed suffering on the international playing field. Support for Chinese positions on human rights, which have significantly hindered UN intervention into humanitarian catastrophes (like Darfur and Kosovo), has increased from less than 50 percent at the beginning of the decade to over 80 percent in recent years. “The European Union is suffering a slow-motion crisis at the United Nations,” write Gowan and Brantner, “The problem is fading power to set the rules of the game. The EU’s members insist that the UN is central to their vision of international order and universal human rights – but the UN is increasingly being shaped by China, Russia and their allies.”

These trends have resulted in what Halper, quite distressingly, calls the neo-Westphalian bargain. “According to this bargain,” he writes, “sovereign states are empowered to settle the terms of existence inside their borders between the government and the governed. Internationally, they deal with each other in a strict market setting and recognize no real rights or obligations other than to fulfill agreed contracts.” Such a bargain, of course, creates problems for the continued functioning and respect of international law, human rights norms, and principles such as the Responsibility to Protect.

How is the United States responding? From their study of China, officials in the United States seem to have rightly gathered that while China adheres to a principle of non-interference, it is deeply anxious about its own reputation in the international arena. According to Halper, China is concerned because it seeks a seat at the top table in global affairs. “It wants to be a world leader,” he says, “It thinks it’s time that it is recognized as a world leader. And it believes that its contest with the United States is a zero-sum contest”

According to Halper, the Chinese government thinks that the United States is in decline and believes that it will inherit American leadership globally. To this end, it has invested much in building its own “brand” abroad. In January 2009, Beijing unveiled an ambitious global media drive, with an allotted budget of $6.8 billion, to better compete in what President Hu Jintao described as a “fierce struggle in the domain of news and opinion.” Chinese officials believe that if the world could look at China in a positive way, and admire China’s progress, they will increase their prospects for global leadership.

The American response has been interesting. The strong interdependence of the Chinese and American economies of course means that neither country can afford military hostilities. As James Mayall has succinctly put it, “The Chinese and American economies are like two drunk old men shuffling along together; if one takes a serious fall, they both go tumbling over.” Such interdependence also means that the United States is blunted in forcefully pushing for the issues integral to the international liberal order, such as human rights, the rule of law, and free speech.

While success is certainly not guaranteed, a proper understanding of these broad geopolitical dynamics reveals much about U.S. activity in recent years, especially in the international arena. Spaces like the Human Rights Council have increasingly been used by the United States to not only counter China’s presentation of itself to the world, but also to send a subtle message to smaller states under its influence (like Sri Lanka) with the hope of slowly nudging them back to the liberal democratic fold.

As events like the Arab Spring continue to transform the region, and as some African populations begin to evince anti-Chinese sentiment, the United States will seek to once again make the argument in the international arena that the Western model still has legs, that autocracies breed resentment, and that there is indeed a necessary link between liberal democracy, a respect for human rights, and economic development. Whether anyone cares to pay attention is another matter.


Amarnath Amarasingam is a Doctoral Candidate and Lecturer at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. His research interests are in social movements, diaspora studies, nationalism, media studies, and the sociology of religion. He is the editor of The Stewart/Colbert Effect: Essays on the Real Impacts of Fake News and Religion and the New Atheism: A Critical Appraisal, as well as many academic articles and book chapters. He has also contributed to The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, The Toronto Star, and The Washington Post’s On Faith blog. He is currently writing his dissertation entitled, Pain, Pride, and Politics: Sri Lankan Tamil Activism in Canada. He can be reached through Facebook and Twitter.

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