Engaging China: Interlocution

Asad-Ul Iqbal Latif. Between Rising Powers: China, Singapore and India. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2007.

China’s reforms straddled the global transition from the Cold War. China’s future had hung in the balance in the late 1970s after the excesses of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, Deng Xiaoping rose to power, determined to reform a failing system. Deng was opposed by those who believed that he would place the whole socialist project in jeopardy. The contest between the two sides came to the fore clearly at the Fifth National People’s Congress in early 1978, when the Hua Guofeng faction (which would come to be branded as leftist) and Deng’s moderates clashed. Within the year, there were signs that Deng had won. At the Third Plenum of the 11th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in December, the party line calling for protracted class struggle was repudiated in favour of the Four Modernizations of agriculture, industry, research and development, and the military. The Four Modernizations, which reoriented China towards the market, marked four successive phases of reform: agricultural and industrial devolution from 1979 to 1983; the second phase of reform from 1983 to 1987 that abolished communes and saw greater emphasis being placed on the establishment of special economic zones; the third phase from 1987 to 1993, during which the private sector was legalized as a complement to the public sector; and the fourth phase from 1993, when the socialist market economy was codified in the Constitution. It was clear that the Dengists were charting China’s future anew.

However, Satya J. Gabriel argues that even when Marxian ideas ceased to determine public policies in post-Mao China, there remained among the Chinese leadership “a latent Marxian ontology of economic life as a continuous series of tensions and struggles…”. History had shaped the jagged contours of that ontology. Both the leaders of China and its masses could draw on a common pool of memory of how their country had been forced to open its markets to Western traders in the 19th century through a series of “unequal treaties”, notably the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 that had ceded Hong Kong to Britain. But a suspicion of Western motives did not outweigh the felt need to open up to the world to recover from the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Placing Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the context of their precursors from 9A.D., Chi Wang notes that Deng responded to his opponents, who criticized his ideas as being pro-Western, by characterizing the reforms as socialism with Chinese characteristics. The Dengists insisted that China was not selling its history or even the early achievements of its communist past in re-engaging the world. China was reformulating its strategy of survival and success on the basis that “opening up is just a means to an end, rather than an end in itself”.

Formulations containing words such as “socialism” did not go down well abroad, however. Reformist China’s entry into global economy in the closing decades of the 20th century was a political event as well. After the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in 1991, liberal democracy became the dominant mode of governance, preferred in both the advanced economies and adopted in word, if not practised always in deed, in the states born out of the dissolution of the colonial European and Soviet empires. Among the nations arguing for liberal democracy as the defining principle of the post-Cold War era was the United States, whose victory over the Soviet Union led to exuberant calls to replace the Cold War strategy of containment with a “strategy of enlargement—enlargement of the world’s community of market democracies”. The economic rejuvenation of a billion Chinese certainly made their country a welcome addition to the community of markets, but the problem was that China, with nuclear weapons and a veto at the United Nations Security Council, was not a democracy and had no desire to become one. Its socialism with Chinese characteristics—or Market-Leninism, the form in which the combination was popularized in the West—was a model where the market generated economic growth without challenging the hegemony of a one-party state structured along Leninist lines of legitimacy and authority. Should such an apparent anachronism be allowed to enter the economic club led by the advanced democracies? Or should praetorian China be expected to follow the Soviet Union into ideological oblivion? Would it thereby keep its rendezvous with the end of history, that moment of dénouement when the Berlin Wall fell to the latest assault in “humankind’s long Darwinian search for an optimally efficient political-economic system”?

The jury was out on this question, for China was both a bustling marketplace for foreigners and an agora with its own peculiar sense of the past. American businessmen could eat at the world’s biggest McDonald’s in Beijing and indulge in the “centuriesold foreign dream of selling one of everything to each Chinese”. Market-driven Americans might take heart from the curious historical detail that no two countries with McDonald’s had warred with each other since hosting the fast-food restaurant, this conjuncture being an extrapolation from the idea that countries prosperous enough to boast McDonald’s had a stake in a peaceful international system where interlocking economic interests softened the warring instincts of states. However, the issue was not prosperity per se but a prosperous democracy—and that, China was not. Here, more convincing than a McTheory of international relations was democratic peace theory, which argues that the “distinctive domestic institutions and political values of liberal democracies ensure peace among them, but not between liberal democracies and nondemocracies”. Thus, the need to see a democratic Beijing was an essential part of the desire to make China a peaceful country whose domestic norms would be consonant with the expectations of an America-led international system.

Yet, that was only one view. Sitting in Beijing, Americans might imagine that their democratic values were being universalized in the world’s largest country through icons of popular consumption such as Big Macs and Coca-Cola. But the truth was that Americans in business and public policy often failed to remember that “in the world of political economy, you aren’t necessarily what you eat”. Or drink. Big Macs and Coca-Cola were not necessarily franchised oases on the road leading out from China’s communist past to democracy. China’s own Darwinian experience of embattled centres, warring states, fears of disintegration, foreign invasions, rebellions against obstreperous barbarians, and an overall fear of chaos provided much clearer signposts to the future. The Beijing leadership could tap into this ingrained fear of chaos when it argued that the West was engaged in “peaceful evolution”, a policy of subversion meant to undermine the party’s hegemony in Chinese society without attacking China militarily. Whether that argument was a case of special pleading is not the issue: the point is that Chinese leaders could make the argument because it was true to the historical grain of a nation whose autonomy had been subverted without direct colonization. The force of national memory, utilized by Beijing but emanating authentically nevertheless from the deep consciousness of an intensely historical people, is what many Westerners and some Asians failed to understand or refused to acknowledge. The failure created the real gap between the reality of even modernizing China and the expectations that its democracy-minded global partners had of it. China simply refused to modernize its economy on others’ political terms. This was the gap between it and the West.

It was this gap into which Singapore inserted itself. Psychologically speaking, the city-state belonged sufficiently to the West and China to speak credibly of one to the other. Singapore was a colonial creation by a Western adventurer; independent Singapore stayed true to its Western heritage, which included the institution of universal suffrage in Britain, by giving each adult the vote and choosing the rule of law. But that was about the extent of the homage it paid to its colonial past. Independent Singapore’s soft-authoritarianism—which curtailed political and social liberties on the argument that democracy should not encourage a populist competition for votes based on divisive issues of ethnicity and class—ensured that governance took precedence over democracy in the “administrative state”. True, the political means through which Singapore ensured stability drew the wrath of scribes, but the wrathful do not invest—businessmen do—and scribes do not form the majority of voters. So long as investors were drawn to Singapore by the profits that they could make from its stability, as they were; and so long as the majority of voters did not prefer the freedoms of Western democracy to the economic advances that they were making, which they appeared not to prefer, Singapore’s government had little to worry about. In the ruling party’s compact with pragmatic Singaporeans, they would, and did, give it votes in return for the jobs, homes, highways and foreign holidays that the government delivered efficiently. This compact formed a basis of the Asian values that Singapore began to propagate in the final decades of the 20th century; we shall address later the role of value systems in Singapore’s engagement of China.

The point is that if Singapore, a city-state of a few million people with hardly any natural resources, could thrive in the global market in spite of its authoritarian political system, there was no compelling reason why a billion-strong and resource-rich China could not do so. Singapore, the only Chinese-majority state outside Greater China, was the natural interlocutor between a modernizing China and a West that included those who apparently wished to transform the oldest existing civilizational nation into a Chinese suburb of the Western hemisphere. No such catastrophe need occur: such was the message from Singapore that resonated in Beijing.

It is important to emphasize the importance of Singapore’s political foothold in China in assessing its engagement of Beijing and in comparing that access with Singapore’s engagement of New Delhi. India’s normative inheritance of Westminster-style democracy, the rule of law, an independent judiciary and an apolitical civil service made it unnecessary for any country to act as an interface between New Delhi and the West. The key difference between the take-off in Singapore’s relations with China, and its ties with India, was the political one—the overtures to Beijing on which Singapore based its desired role of interlocutor. That role shaped itself around the many public interventions on China’s behalf that Singapore’s leaders, primarily Lee Kuan Yew, made to international audiences; and around his substantial access to Chinese leaders spearheading economic change. Singapore became a part of China’s re-engagement with the world as Deng and his radical economic reformers, facing leftist opposition at home, encountered democrats’ opposition to their political conservatism abroad.

Singapore could play this role because foreigners bent on democratizing China were not being helpful to the reformers trying to bring it into the global system. Chi Wang exclaims that, “encouraged by the outcry of a handful of Chinese students and intellectuals, who have little idea of life beyond their Westernized cities, some U.S. policy makers would like to see the 4,000 years of Chinese tradition change overnight”. In its opposition to foreign pressure on China, Singapore’s message was that the flag does not have to follow trade: the Chinese Communist Party did not have to cede political control along with economic space. While Singapore hardly shared the Marxian ontological premises of Deng’s pragmatic conservatives, it understood that their purpose was to revitalize China and preserve its ruling party. Their purpose was not to abolish the party’s centrality and their own power in the affairs of the nation that the party had reclaimed from warlords at home and foreign predators three decades earlier. In providing a vote of support for the Four Modernizations from a foreign yet culturally familiar country, Singapore was saying in effect that there was a third way between the material poverty that Mao’s autarchic Chineseness had inflicted on China while incontestably giving it autonomy in world affairs, and the danger that a prosperous China would become a global Chinatown with Western characteristics. That third way lay through Singapore’s record of modernizing its economy in a non-Westernized polity. Among Asia’s Newly-Industrialized Economies whose prowess the Chinese admired, colonial Hong Kong could not play the role of re-introducing China to the world; nor, obviously, could estranged Taiwan. Singapore could. It could show China the path back to a world defined, not by McDonald’s Golden Arches under which the global nomads of commerce ate, drank and dreamt of changing China, but by the ancient arches of retreat that the cunning turns of history now had cleared for China’s re-entry to the world.

It was a powerful message, combining enough of market possibilities with due regard for the Chinese leadership’s Leninist role to go down very well in Beijing. Indeed, when Deng toured southern China in 1992 to accelerate his reforms, he specifically called for “learning from Singapore” to promote what he defined as “rapid economic development with good social order”. “The choice of Singapore’s economic and social model as the archetype (of) Chinese development was a carefully scripted and rehearsed effort on the part of Deng Xiaoping… His message to the party cadres was to prioritize robust economic achievements over inter-or intra-party politics.” Beijing searched for “non-Western experiences” because it deemed the political cost of adopting Western-style democracy to be too high. In later years, Singapore’s political system—which a Chinese scholar defined as “electoral authoritarianism”—caught the attention of party school officials, who believed that it was very likely that Beijing would adopt a modified Singaporean style of limited democracy. By 1996, Singapore became the foreign country that Beijing residents favoured the most. Singapore’s interlocutory role took off in China.

Interlocution has two sides. To China, Singapore presented itself as a politically safe economic bridge to a Western-led world. To the West, Singapore presented China, not just as a land of economic opportunity but as a player in the larger arena of war and peace. During the Cold War, when speaking at a joint meeting of the United States Congress in Washington, D.C., in 1985, Lee Kuan Yew said: “I want to refocus your attention, distracted by the problems of trade imbalance, job loss, high value of the dollar, and budget deficits, back on the basic issues of war and peace.” More than the atom bomb had been responsible for the four decades of relative peace since World War II, he said. Decolonization; the establishment of an open and fair trading system under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade; and the creation of a stable currency exchange system under the original International Monetary Fund Agreement at Bretton Woods had laid the basis of a world order in which the explosive growth in trade, banking and finance had provided nations with a realistic alternative to seeking power through territorial aggrandizement. Japan had taken off, followed by South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the ASEAN countries.

Placing post-Maoist China’s decision to modernize its economy firmly within the possibilities of this peaceful economic order, he reminded his audience that a “poor but ideologically fervent China” had been a “ceaseless spoiler of other countries’ economic plans” from 1949 to 1976, undermining their stability by exporting revolution. China had discontinued support for guerilla insurgencies in Southeast Asia “for the present”, Lee said in a pointed reminder of what Beijing could relapse into doing should it be rebuffed by the international system. Hailing the significance of China’s decision to modernize for peace, stability and growth in Asia, he framed his remarks against the contest between democracy and the free market versus communism and the controlled economy, the ideological binaries through which Cold War Americans viewed and judged the world. He asked Americans whether they wanted to abandon the contest for Third World hearts and minds that they nearly had won. Calling on American legislators to abjure protectionism, he asked their country to uphold rules of international conduct that reward peaceful, cooperative behaviour and that punish transgressors. “In every age, the leading power has to carry the burden of encouraging the peaceful acceptance of the status quo,” Lee observed.

That observation did not lose its edge with the end of the Cold War; if anything, the disappearance of the Soviet Union renewed the urgency of Washington drawing Beijing into the status quo because the United States now was not only the leading global power but the only superpower.

Emerging as ASEAN’s most ardent advocate of engagement with China, Singapore leaders touched on the need for engagement in almost every speech they made or interview they gave on East Asian affairs. In 1994, Lee said: “For the world’s stability and security, integrating China into an international framework is not a question of choice but of necessity. The world does not need another Cold War.” Lee encapsulated Singapore’s expectations of China’s role in 1996, when the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom honoured him with the Architect of the New Century Award. Groatian undertones were heavy in Lee’s speech on the occasion. “Trade does not prevent wars, but it does require peace,” Lee quoted Richard Nixon as writing in his book, Beyond Peace. He drew on the former U.S. President’s words to argue that China should be engaged. “China has repeatedly stated that it will never become a hegemon. It is in everyone’s interest that before that moment of choice arrives, China should be given every incentive to choose international cooperation which will absorb its energies constructively for another 50 to 100 years,” Lee declared. His Groatian emphasis on economic cooperation as a source of peace was accompanied by a ready reminder of the other strand of Singapore’s approach to global affairs: the city-state’s belief in a balance of power among major international players, a balance that should be supple enough to incorporate rising powers that might otherwise threaten the status quo, but a balance by whose rules the rising power must play as well. Thus, if China did not have economic opportunities to grow peacefully, the world would have to live with a “pushy” Beijing, Lee said. In that case, however, the United States would not be the only country to be concerned about what China would do when it was able to “contest the present world dispensation”. Asian countries shared the concern: would China seek to re-establish its traditional pattern of international relations in which vassal states had a tributary relationship with the Middle Kingdom? “Any signs of this will alarm all the countries in the region, and cause most countries to realign themselves closer to the US and Japan,” Lee forecast. His warning, that a revisionist China would cause other Asian countries to balance it by moving towards the United States and Japan, was directed, no doubt, at Beijing. That done, his larger message was meant for the West, including the United States. “The world will not be better off with a China that is not bound by its rules,” Singapore’s elder statesman declared.

Lee’s remarks summed up Singapore’s case for engaging a rising China, a case that was two decades old when he spoke at the Nixon Center. He placed these remarks within the context of America’s role in Asia. Lee recalled how East Asian industrialization had been hastened by America’s military interventions in Japan, Korea and Vietnam; and by its economic initiatives, from the reconstruction of Japan, to helping South Korea rebuild, and to buying time in Vietnam to enable Southeast Asia to get its act together and lay the foundations of ASEAN’s growth. China’s entry into this East Asian industrial system had “sparked off the most spectacular economic transformations in the history of man”. Indeed, Lee forecast, American policies had initiated a process that in the next two to three decades would move the world’s economic centre of gravity from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The United States now should use the time available to help China integrate itself into the world community and play a role in shaping the international order. Even as he made these points, Lee characterized Nixon as a “pragmatic strategist” who today would engage and not contain China, but the former American leader also would “quietly set pieces into place for a fallback position should China not play according to the rules as a good global citizen”. In that eventuality, which would force countries to choose sides, Nixon would make arrangements to win over to America’s side Japan, Korea, ASEAN, India, Australia, New Zealand and the Russian Federation. Lee was aware of how decisively the Asian balance of power could shift should an economically resurgent China assert itself strategically. But such a change would occur only after turns down the road—and turns that were by no means inexorable—in the evolution of the post-Cold War security order. What the emerging contours of that order required was not China’s containment but its engagement. This goal called for the managers of the global order to take a clear view of their responsibilities.

China’s transformation from a political-ethnic threat to Singapore, to an object of intense engagement appears astonishing, but it is important to keep certain continuities in view. Whether during the Cold War or after it, Singapore’s objective was to encourage the United States and the other powers to bring China into the international status quo. After the Cold War, Singapore had no desire to see Asia regress to a Sinocentric regional order reminiscent of the pre-European tributary system that had reduced states on China’s periphery to satellites revolving around the Middle Kingdom in hierarchical subordination. An effective return to the past was not a stated Chinese intention, of course, but intentions can change with ability, especially for a nation with stubborn memories of its centrality in Asian affairs before the advent of colonialism ended that role and inaugurated a Chinese century of humiliation at Western hands. It was not Singapore’s intention to see China alter the norms and practices of international relations as it rose to prominence. Particularly sensitive to how its relations with China would be viewed by its neighbours and the West, Chinese-majority Singapore made it clear that it was not an interlocutor for an ascendant China wishing to exclude the external powers from Asia in a China-led future. All that Singapore was saying was that the external powers, primarily the United States, should not seek to exclude China from supping at the table of existing powers. In 1998, Singapore Minister George Yeo warned: “Together with the European Union, the US and Japan will have to manage carefully and strategically China’s incorporation into the global system. The alternative is global conflict.” There was no question of Singapore favouring an Asia with Chinese characteristics but, equally, it did not want China to be treated unfavourably merely because Beijing wished to run its domestic affairs as it pleased. The distinction between Singapore wanting to bring China peacefully into the Asian balance of power—which it did desire—and Singapore wanting Asia to become a regional system in China’s orbit—which it did not desire—is an important one.

It is difficult to determine what effect the city-state’s interlocutory role had on Western, especially American, policies towards China. On the occasion of the Nixon Center award, Henry Kissinger feted Lee for the “seminal role” that he had played “in educating this provincial country, thrown into sudden contact with cultures that it never had to deal with”. Kissinger chided Americans for their tendency to demand that “other nations adopt today what it took 800 years of evolution to produce in the West”, echoing Singapore’s objection to external pressure being brought on China to democratize.

However, the actual course of the American encounter with China has been more complex, of course. Washington’s relations with Beijing have reflected attempts by policymakers to “choose between a range of policy options that they hope or believe will have the effect of integrating China into the world order and/or deter China from actions seriously disruptive of the world order”. Within this framework, issues of trade, labour, democracy, human rights, religious freedom, weapons proliferation and environmental responsibility—whether championed by legislators or by nongovernmental organizations and political lobbies—have risen or receded on the White House’s agenda as part of a tactical embrace of Beijing that has veered from close engagement during the Cold War Nixon years, to ambiguous calls for a strategic partnership during the Clinton era, to what reads like strategic containment in all but name. The latest approach to China is embodied in documents such as the United States National Security Strategy released in 2002, when President George W. Bush declared that he sought to create “a balance of power that favors human freedom”. In that context, the document welcomes the emergence of a strong, peaceful, and prosperous China but insists that the “democratic development of China is crucial to that future”. China’s leaders have not made yet “the next series of fundamental choices about the character of their state”, it says, warning: “In pursuing advanced military capabilities that can threaten its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region, China is following an outdated path that, in the end, will hamper its own pursuit of national greatness.” A balance of power that favours human freedom does not seem to have a great deal to offer Beijing.

This is another way of saying that Singapore’s interlocutory role—which has emphasized the importance for the West of engaging China as a power without demanding the reform of domestic Chinese politics as a condition for engagement—has not had a substantial impact on the direction of the Sino-U.S. relationship. But this does not need to be said at all because Singapore has had no illusions about its ability to influence foreign policy outcomes in Washington—or Tokyo or Brussels. There, chanceries would fashion strategies towards Beijing on the basis of their own power, interests and imperatives—much as China would treat these capitals in terms of its own calculus of strength, interests and exigencies, not in terms of Singapore’s arguments on behalf of an apposite international system into which it would like to see China incorporated as a great power. Speaking of the city-state’s approach to Beijing, Khong declares that engagement is a process in which “interested members of the international community can participate”, there being nothing to suggest that “to qualify as an ‘engager,’ states like Singapore—or Malaysia or Indonesia—must be able to unilaterally move the ‘engagee’ toward the goal of using its power responsibly”. Rather, the interlocutory aspect of Singapore’s engagement of China has reflected its leaders’ awareness of the importance of “voice” in shaping the terms of a debate. In arguing that China should be engaged and not isolated or contained, Singapore has tried to ensure that China’s voice would not be lost in translation into the political parlance of a West where Kissinger’s 800 years of development have produced contending discourses of capitalism, liberalism, democracy and human rights, all seeking to define how nations should behave with their own populations and with one another. The rise of China reinvigorated a global debate in which Singapore weighed in.

Over the years, Singapore’s interlocutory role has receded as a factor in its relations with China. This is because reformist Beijing does not need an interlocutor as it did in the early years of its entry to the global system. Its own leaders, particularly young, Western-educated technocrats moving up the political and corporate ladders, are more than capable of arguing China’s case to the rest of the world. Singapore’s interlocutory role also has confronted key issues in Beijing’s relations with the world, including the Tiananmen Square killings and their effect on the return of Hong Kong to the mainland. There have been other issues as well, of a different nature: Singapore’s espousal of Asian values in an era of China’s rise, Beijing’s entry into the ASEAN Regional Forum, the fate of the Suzhou Industrial Park, and Taiwan’s role in the world’s relations with China. To these issues we now turn.