Below is the third in a series of email exchanges with James Fallows, author of China Airborne. You can find part 1 here and part 2 here.

Q. James, despite the depth and variety of US-China ties, which you described in your first answer, is it fair to say that America's policy elites have yet to really reconcile themselves to the scale of China's rise? Maybe it's denial, or maybe it's pre-occupation with the Middle East and Afghanistan, but I detect a certain reluctance to grapple with the implications of what Richard McGregor called 'a global event without parallel...a genuine mega-trend, a phenomenon with the ability to remake the world economy'.

Perhaps Obama's Asia 'pivot' suggests this period is now ending, but I wonder if you can speak to the broad subject of American perceptions of and responses to China's rise. And drawing on your connections with Australia, how do you compare Australia's China debate with that of the US?

A. This is another intriguing question, which I'll answer first in a 'meta' way and then on the actual merits.

One of the themes I have tried hardest to convey, to an audience that is concentrated in the United States, is how tremendously varied and contradictory are the trends and pressures at work in China now. As you know from my book, I say that many aspects of China's future will depend on the struggle playing out in countless arenas between the 'security state' forces in the Chinese leadership and the 'economic development' forces.

That struggle is at the centre of the aerospace disputes that I talk about: business people want to expand their ability to travel quickly around the country; the PLA in specific and security-state interests more generally don't want to loosen their control. The same battle also applies in anything involving the internet: security interests naturally want to keep it controlled, which slows it down; economic interests want the reverse. It applies in universities: how many of the world's leading scholars, who might have offers on the table from Australia, Germany, England, the United States, will choose instead to make their careers in a country with a censored press? And so on. 

I belabor this point for two reasons, one about China and one about the United States. About China, the point is that this chaos and tension is so much more striking when you are in the country than when you are reading or thinking about it from a distance. That's true anywhere, but I think it's especially important in this case. And about the United States, the point is that the 'foreign policy elites' that contend over US policy have a wider range of views about China in particular than might be apparent from afar.

Of course I realise that the whole world is aware of many cleavages in American foreign policy: neo-cons versus 'realists', soft-power people versus hard-power interventionists, Atlanticists versus North Americanists versus Pacific-oriented people, the AIPAC group versus its sceptics, and on through the list. All this is is obvious, but it's a prelude to my answer to your question. And the answer is: American policy elites vary tremendously in their attitudes toward and assessments of China. The fact of that variation deserves more attention than I think it usually receives in Australia, as do the reasons that lead the different camps to their views.

Let me make the strongest argument against my own case: in the 30+ years since Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping took formal steps toward normalised relations, US foreign policy toward China has been more generally consistent than its policy toward most other parts of the world. Despite their differences in countless other areas, Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama have maintained the following three-element approach toward China:

  • Part 1: It is better to try to work with China than to set in for another mainly-adversarial Cold War relationship.
  • Part 2: the established powers should view China's economic and technological rise as overall a good rather than a bad development, since the challenges created by a prospering China are more manageable than those created by China's continued isolation and backwardness.
  • Part 3: notwithstanding the previous two points, the US and China will still have a range of serious differences and disagreements, which may become acute at times. (Past examples obviously include the Tiananmen crackdown, the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Serbia, and the plane-collision accident at the start of the Bush II era. Recent examples include the Google showdown and the Chen Guangcheng case. Ongoing frictions involve Taiwan arms sales, visits of the Dalai Lama, and trade disputes.) 

If you look at the range of official US policies and elite-level US attitudes toward China in these 30+ years, I think you can fit just about everything within a band defined by those three principles.

There is a fourth codicil, which is: whichever party is out of power will accuse the incumbent president of being too soft toward China, even though the out-of-power group will assume the same policy if it takes office. The classic example here is Bill Clinton. As a candidate, he lambasted the first President Bush for truckling to the 'butchers of Beijing'. As president, he oversaw China's entry to the WTO.

Yet despite this consistency of policy, which in my view reflects a fairly constant and realistic assessment of America's strategic interests in dealing with China, there is a huge range of 'elite' level view of China. Some people cannot be bothered to think about it, compared with Middle East issues, the Af-Pak front, the whole 'Global War on Terror' concept, Russian and European dramas, Mexico, and so on. Other people are China-centric to the exclusion of all else.

Perhaps more important, among those who take China seriously, there is a very deep (and often well-informed!) range of opinion about the prospects for China itself. For many decades now, the Chinese leadership has avoided political and economic crises at just the last moment. Does that mainly indicate their skill and dexterity? Or does it mainly indicate that they are pushing their luck and soon will face problems they cannot solve? Does the economy's huge reliance on infrastructure, investment, and exports constitute a strength or a terrible weakness? Are environmental constraints to main challenge to China's growth or mainly a stimulus for Chinese success in clean-tech industries?

Again as you know, the last few chapters of my book are an attempt to grapple with questions like these. I introduce them here to indicate that while there are countless Americans who have not paid sufficient attention to China's rise (as there are countless Brazilians, Russians, Poles, you name it) at the elite levels of US governmental, commercial, and academic life, you will find very rich debate about what is propelling China, what is impeding it, and what the consequences may be for America and the world.

Many Americans may be in denial about China. As a historical/cultural note: ordinary members of the public in big, continental countries tend to be inward looking and parochial. It's been a long-term trait of China and America alike, and it's a basic difference from the built-in outlook of countries that are smaller either in landmass, like Holland, or in population, like Australia.

This brings me at long last back to Australia. I enjoy almost everything about Australia's attitude and outlook, in my frequent visits there as part of the US Studies Centre at Sydney Uni (I will be there again early next month). I very much respect the outsized role that Australian writers and analysts have played in thinking about Asia (if I wanted to wallow in cliché, I could talk about 'punching above your weight'). But my impression is that both at the elite level and among the general public, today's Australians are much more certain about China's rise and dominance, and therefore much more likely to speculate about the 'China-centric age', than their American counterparts. Possible reasons for this difference:

  1. Perhaps it's an entirely natural difference in perspective, since Australia's economy is already so much smaller than China's and America's is still much larger. Australian analysts are accustomed to thinking of the country's interests in a world defined by larger powers, and they are recalibrating their sights now. Additionally, there is no plausible scenario in which the United States suffers any kind of direct military threat from China; that is not the case for Australia. This difference also can explain different outlooks. 
  2. Perhaps it shows something about American denialism, insularity, inability to face unpleasant facts.
  3. Perhaps it shows something about Australian over-reading of the evidence, with too credulous a view of China and too doom-laden a view of the United States.

Perhaps there are elements of all these ingredients. I can promise you that many of my countrymen take China and its prospects very, very seriously, and debate its pluses and minuses much as we do those of the US itself. And meanwhile, we assume that Australia is again in a favored-by-circumstances-and-shrewdness position!

That is more than you asked for, but as you can tell, I am engaged by this theme.