The Chinese Carrot

"Speak Softly & Carry a Big Stick"

This phrase has been used an uncountable number of times since first introduced into the American lexicon by Teddy Roosevelt around the turn of the 20th century. I don't have any stats to back this up, but I would imagine its use has been limited to a single actor (CEO, nation-state, etc.) all but a couple of cases. This post will split the phrase into two components - American hard power & Chinese soft power.

Image via Foreign Policy.

The impetus for this post was a Foreign Policy article I read on the plane last night (great read, highly recommend it). In it, Gary J. Bass speaks to China's interactions (for lack of a better word) with the "world's bad guys", and how it affects the developing world. The crux of the article is that China is all about the use of soft power when it's in their best interests - for example, they've worked behind the scenes in Sudan to pressure Omar al-Bashir to allow for the Southern Sudan to vote for secession earlier this year. It is my belief (and I don't believe I'm out on a limb here) that soft power, alone, is not successful. 'Coincidentally', hard power, alone, is not successful - something the US has learned over the past decade. Therefore, I propose the following solution to allow both the US & China to 'save face': let China be the carrot & the US be the stick.

If the efforts (of both countries) in Sudan work, can it serve as an unwritten model for international intervention moving forward? What about Zimbabwe, and the Chinese thought that sovereign nations should work out their own problems (e.g. the US Civil War)? Obviously, all actors have interests for any dispute to play out in their favor, but could we be entering an era of multi-step (with some steps backwards) processes to arrive at healthier solutions? Can different actors successfully coordinate the dance that is speaking softly and carrying a big stick?

These questions bring me to my next question: what are China's true motives and goals on the international stage? They cannot rock the boat too significantly due to the instability of their domestic political, social, and economic conditions. Personally, perhaps being too optimistic and naive, I don't envision China seeking global domination. I think we should continue to monitor Chinese influences abroad to ensure they're not anti-US (need not be pro-US), while simultaneously highlighting the positives of our system. I realize this has the US entering soft power territory, and I think this is the direction we should be moving regardless of how US-Chinese relations evolve.

Ultimately, I believe that if we lessen our overreach and refocus a bit more on the domestic front (gradualness is key here), the US can return to a healthy growth rate that more evenly distributes wealth. As mentioned above, China also needs to stabilize their domestic situation to continue their phenomenal growth, indicating that the Chinese threat is not so much a threat, but more something of which to be aware. If truly understood, the Chinese 'threat' should be something the US can leverage to pursue its own interests - interests that are more likely than not in-line with those of the Chinese.


  1. China may also be focusing on a long term gradual change from dictatorship/communism to capitalism to democracy...HA! I made myself laugh. They'll never embrace democracy. But I do think they will embrace capitalism. I think they will gradually improve their labor laws to appease and participate in the global economy.

    I truly think that over the next 20-30 years we will get an answer as to whether freedom of speech is an inalienable right or simply a freedom provided in the US, but not necessary for a just government.

    China is trying to become the largest economy in the world without succumbing to Western pressure that everyone must be a democracy. They will improve their labor laws because of international economic pressure, but not due to physical pressure. I think they will become less belligerent, but isn't in a rush to defend human rights in other countries. This will eventually change. They will realize that if they want to be a world leader, they need to act like it and set an example.

  2. Ugh. I just wrote an essay and blogger ate it. Two things, two posts.

    First thing: "what are China's true motives and goals on the international stage?"

    Scott, you ask the defining question of our day. China will have to move slowly, but I do think it will get a lot of internal pressure to become a more open and democratic society.

    I read recently that China's population is over halfway to an average income of $12,000. Why is that important? That is the income level at which other Asian nations such as Taiwan and South Korea demanded changes towards a more Western style of government and values.

    If China changes, it will be slow. At least the 10 years it's taken for them to open up their economy; most likely closer to the 20-30 years Aaron estimates.

    That means China can't participate with us in, say, telling Yemen not to quash protesters - China currently quashes protesters too. But maybe China can help with an issue like North Korea?

  3. Second thing: this is a great idea, so much so that it might already be happening.

    I recently read an Economist article that talked about Britain's shifting stance towards Israel. Where as historically the UK has been the 2nd biggest friend to Israel after the US, recently the Prime Minister began talking sternly about settlement plans and the Gaza blockade. Why the change in attitude by Britain?

    The Economist theorized that it was because the US asked the UK to do so. Either Pres. Obama told Britain it no longer had to toe the "ally" line with Israel, or he explicitly asked Britain to get tougher. Either way, this is enacting exactly the same kind of good cop / bad cop scenario that you describe, Scott.

    The US still doesn't want to offend Israel's domestic lobby, but likewise it doesn't want to be in bed with Israel's bellicose policies forever. Therefore, the US is gradually stepping up international pressure on Israel by having the UK do the talking. If enough of an international consensus builds, the US can eventually step in and reduce military and financial support - the stick.

    You think that's a good example of your theory Scooter? You think this approach could work?

  4. "At least the 10 years it's taken for them to open up their economy"

    They've been opening up for 30 years, so I do think it'll be a while before they become true global players. That said, they're definitely the adolescent teenager (was that redundant?) who will be pushing to be treated as an adult in the intervening years/decades. That said, I don't think the $12K mark will be the same for China for two reasons:

    1) Externally, they're already tremendously powerful in terms of GDP and PPP, so a comparison to the tiny Tigers of the 80s/90s doesn't seem too apt.

    2) Internally, I think the government will be faced with pressure much earlier than those of Taiwan/Korea; I say this as I think their income inequality is much more stark than the smaller countries due to it's sheer size. This chart already shows that China is on-par with the US for income inequality, and I would put money on them being ahead of us if I could find numbers for today.

    Interesting comments on the US/UK/Israel menage-a-tois (you see that MP, I can speak le French!). If the Economist's theories hold true - and I would trust them to be at least somewhat on the right track - this definitely qualifies under the mutli-lateral carrot/stick theory. And, I think it can work.

  5. To clarify my thoughts a bit on the first note: I think China's transition to an integrated, global player will be forced upon them quicker than they would have hoped - hence the $12K line not being of importance.

  6. Sorry to break up the menage-a-trois (too bad the French don't have a word for that), but I should probably weigh in a bit if I want to still consider myself a Poli Sci alum.

    I think the China as teenager metaphor could not be more appropriate. China has convinced itself that it can totally take care of myself, dad. Pshaw. The problem is, they don't really want to take care of themselves in any way that is acceptable to the "adults" in the rest of the world. Look at something like the rampant undervaluing of the yuan: China wants to be a partner in the global community (and, make no mistake, the leader of that global community), but they want it to be absolutely on their terms.

    What does this mean to Western democracies? Scary things. China has had a run-in with protestors advocating for democratic reform. I think there are a couple of YouTube videos out there with "Tienanmen" in the title if you want to see the results. The problem is that while China may have embraced economic reforms that favor capitalism, these have only benefited the elite castes of society that were already doing pretty spiffy under communism. So, while they claim that they are moving towards a more Western-friendly society, they are actually squeezing the very "middle class" that have historically built the great modern democratic states. I'd venture far enough to say that China doesn't really have a middle class, as evidenced by the $12K figure. If nothing else, there is a nearly catastrophic disparity between living conditions in the coastal (read: urban) regions and the rural interior of the country.

    OK, I know I bounced all over the place there. But my point is that even 30 years might be a stretch before we see a responsible, "grown-up" China that can be an equal partner with the West.

    Much better to put your money on India, just like Sam Seaborn told us to.

  7. Counter argument: why does China need to "globalize" (for lack of a better word) on the terms of the West? Why can't they want to be a partner in the global community on their terms?

  8. Because the alternative is the rest of the world moving towards a more authoritarian and less open society, which would go against the entire sweep of history. There was a time when nobody thought Japan would open itself to the West, that a closed society could remain closed forever.

    China wants to be the leader because it feels entitled to it based on its sheer numbers and foreign debt connections. The latter I can't speak to, because I don't know nearly enough about the details. What China doesn't understand is that a lot of people don't see the Chinese government as being representative of its billions of citizens. And if you aren't representing billions, then you can't really have a legitimate claim to power and influence based on numbers, can you?

  9. Royce, way back at 8:30am, you said, "I do think it will get a lot of internal pressure to become a more open and democratic society."

    I originally read international pressure (probably because I was thinking about my own remarks) and realized that both words fit there.

    Do you think China is more like to change in the face of internal or international pressure?

    I think China is going to make a legitimate effort to create a capitalist economy without a democracy. Off the top of my head, this seems possible if the government willingly improves the lives of it workers, focusing on the lower and middle class.

    In this case, it will be money that talks. The only international pressure that will work is if other countries stop buying goods from China because China treats its worker poorly.

    The internal pressure could be much stronger, but if all of China's workers see their quality of life improve, there would be no incentive to revolt against the government.

  10. MP - I'll respond to your thoughts when I have time later.

    Aaron - wanted to point out that raises in Chinese quality of life due to internal pressure will necessarily lower international demand for Chinese goods due to an increase in cost of said goods. It's a tricky line that China will have to walk, and I have no good answers for how they can do it.

  11. I agree completely China has to walk a fine line between improving worker quality of life and not losing it's big pricing advantage.

    Is it even possible?