An Old China Hand and China’s New Foreign Policy Factory

In the Hutong
New Year Day Five
1718 hrs.

Ross Terrill of the Fairbank Center is an old China Hand, and he writes incisively about a range of topics on China, most notably the nation’s foreign policy.

Recently, he contributed a brilliant article to the Wilson Quarterly entitled “The Case for Selective Failure“, in which he argues for and posits several scenarios where China would stumble just enough to provoke positive and meaningful reform but without experiencing complete systemic breakdown. Undoubtedly we could talk all day about the likelihood of such an event occurring and argue ourselves to a standstill: there is just no way of knowing until after it happened, but the uncertainties are enough that you’d never want to purposely try to provoke such an outcome.

What interested me most, though, was Terrill’s view of China’s foreign policy-making process, revealed in this bit of the article.

There are wise heads in Beijing who understand the latent power of American nationalism and other dangers facing a Chinese rush to the top. They urge their leaders to stick with Deng’s maxim of “hide our strength and bide our time.” These cautious folk in well-connected think tanks and even government ministries do not believe the public mantra that the United States is “holding China back.” Rather, they see clearly that the United States is a force fueling China’s rebirth—by buying Chinese exports and supplying technology for Chinese industry, among many other ways.

There are indeed wise and cool heads in Beijing, but Terrill’s view of how foreign policy is formulated in China comes across as a tad outdated. As I wrote in “The Case for a New Public Diplomacy in China” both here and in AdAge China in 2008, the “cautious folk in well-connected think tanks and even government ministries” are no longer the sole nexus for the creation of policy. As we have seen evinced all too clearly in the past several months, there are a lot of chefs in China’s foreign policy kitchen, and two of the most important new entrants to the process are the PLA and popular opinion.

Over time, these two players will the formulation and execution of foreign policy a complex, slow, and highly politicized process that threatens to retard the conduct of diplomacy in China. To depend on the realists and ignore the idealists, irredentists, and nationalists in Chinese foreign policy would be like ignoring the progressives and the Tea Party in the United States.

Terrill “hopes” that events will see these players in Chinese foreign policy marginalized. But hope is not a method, and it is a poor approach to the conduct of international relations. Wise heads in Washington, DC, Tokyo, Brussels, London, and elsewhere need to adjust their efforts, strategies, and toolkits to incorporate the full set of foreign policy influencers in China, not just the ones who play by the old rules.

The above aside, the article is superb, especially the barbs he tosses at Nouveau Sinologists like Niall Ferguson and American Declinistas. Give it a read.

Bill Bishop

How much of Terrill’s perspective may come from the fact that he only talks to people in the foreign ministry and think tanks who are more “westernized” and likely trained in “barbarian management”? Is he possibly conveying some sort of a selection bias that undermines his argument? As to marginalized, how does Terrill know that it is not the folks he calls “wise heads” who are the ones on the margins, and instead the more nationalistic actors are the ones who represent what the majority of those in power believe?

Also, I would not necessarily call the PLA “new entrants”. They are more like re-entrants in the arc of PRC history.

David Wolf

That’s the impression I get. Either he is applying an outdated template to his analysis, or he’s talking to an incomplete sample based on the people he knows. Or both. Time for a mental reset.

Such errors in analysis from really smart people comfortably sinecured far from China should serve as a warning. Every time I think about moving back to the US, I remember the words of Jeanne-Marie Gescher: “the sell-by date of a China hand is usually 90 days after moving back home.”