7 June, 2023


Whose Arms Will Embrace You? The United States And The Beijing Consensus

By Amarnath Amarasingam –

Amarnath Amarasingam

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 gathereds 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.

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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Latest comments

  • 0

    Very illuminating article. However in countries where capitalist development and industrialization had not taken place naturally, an authoritarian regime can push economic development. Take Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore.(All had right wing authoritarian govts. China’s Communist Party does the same thing. For that change authoritarianism a must. However i am not justifying authoritarianism.

  • 0

    Great analysis !!!

  • 0

    Ultimately US will lose. Not because of the Chinese front. The ultra conservative Muslim factor. US liberalism will be a huge threat, not only to autocratic regimes but to ultra conservative Muslim states. The third world war, if there will be one, would be between liberal west and conservative Muslim world. Biggest irony is that Us is giving birth to many such regimes through it’s own actions. Arab spring is a case in point. High time US started respecting cultural pluralism of the world.

  • 0

    Western Model is the one everyone is seeking in the depth of one’s heart because it recognizes the freedom, uniqueness, rights, and involvement of the individual as well as the collective, there is a balance between the individual and the collective whereas the Chinese Model is based on autocracy and no one including those under autocratic governments truly wants to part with their core values and freedom. China is maintaining this model through subjugation and one day or other it is bound to disintegrate. On the other hand this has something to do with human dignity as well: as long as one is a slave to whatever authority be it state, religion, belief or whatever he has no dignity, he is really a slave. All the blind followers of various religions in the world are really philosophical, ideological and religious slaves which applies to governments as well. A true government must embrace all the aspects of life on earth to the maximum reach possible and not just economic and physical advancement. A nation bereft of these core values is indeed very poor in its soul and it must expeditiously mend the tear.

    Environmental ecological and biological neglect and catastrophe in a tiny island like Sri Lanka adds on to the sum destruction in the world at large. The bio and environmental assets and diversity of Sri Lanka or any other country for that matter is not an asset to be depleted or destroyed at the sole discretion of that particular country but rather they are world heritages which mean they belong to the whole mankind including the posterity. Such is the holistic outlook a country should entertain when governing a country of the world. Tribal, nationalistic or compartmentalized attitudes naturally do not appeal to elevated human aspirations values and existence.

    Sri Lankan government, its despotic family and henchmen are full of corruption, deception, malpractice, inefficiency and rights violation; and it is full of environmental and ecological destruction which is a global concern and issue. China Model would do no good for the health of the world both short term and long term. The world has limited resources and at the rate of current human population and utilitarian expansion the world is bound for catastrophe bio and echo. Western Model must expand adjust and embrace unaddressed issues in the world and work much aggressively for the good of the wider world.

    Who harangued anti-west slogans on the streets of Sri Lanka against Geneva Resolution are not the real voices. They were just stupid manipulated day-to-day existing slaves of an autocratic government–some were given Rs. 1000/-, others Rs. 1500/-, still others liquor etc. and yet others compulsorily forced to secure their jobs in government institutions. But there are thousands upon thousands who are unable to voice their concerns due to autocratic measures, subjugation and oppression that is going on for years now in the country. We representing such voices and global concerns and wanting to break free of this autocratic cage of the Rajapaksha government infested with human rights violations and abductions and murders appeal to the US, the West, the India, the Human Rights watchdogs and all concerned states and organizations to intervene in the affairs of this land under siege of an autocratic dictator in constipation with China against its people purely for exploitation of people and property and to liberate this land and its people and place it on the path of freedom and democracy where it complies with all the positive attributes of the West Model.

    • 0

      So much words to send out the not so subtle message that the West must get involved in creating countries within countries based on minorities. These minorities are going to end up interbreeding within their borders I tell ya!
      These minorities are ones that the limp/prog groups in Western countries embrace based on a ladder of victimhood and are the ones that will give the limps/progs the most political and journalistic noise. For all the talk about diversity, freedom, and expression by the limps/progs, what they really want is groups of people that they can have as voting blocks and nothing else, to maintain their power. Their concern for human rights is matched only by my concern for road kill.

  • 0

    ‘the usa subtle communication in the international arena’…subtle communication i am sure the rivers of blood spilt by the USA in its subtle communication communication policy in those countires it got involved from the 50’s to present.. will have a different prospect in the term subtle communication…. From overthrowing Democratic governments in the 50’s to supporting Facist governments among its subtle communication communication policy.. i think the wolrd should trust china more than the usa.. i mean the people who really know the usa’s subtle communication will not fall for this spin no matter how many good points you try to cover up through intellectual arguments

  • 0

    It’s truly a great and helpful piece of information. I am glad that you simply shared this useful information with us. Please keep us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

  • 0

    “who is the US govt talking to”?… it is obvious..

    Tamils for Obama donated 1 million dollars for Obama’s campaign… Hillary Clinton ALSO accepted (though on record she “returned the terror money”..

    It is this left-over terrror money in the hands of tamils for Obama that the US is talking to….

  • 0

    Products from Chinese Model specially those imported to countries like Sri Lanka where gullible racist and quarrelsome people live and are governed by rogue regimes under the cloak of fake patriotism national sovereignty and security an illusionary concept implanted in the minds of stupid masses thus governed with the connivance of corrupt, crooked and perverted herd of journalists, state officials, law enforcement authorities, politicians, religious leaders, henchmen and civilians etc. are indeed of extremely low quality—no one cares of a Chinese product and in fact Chinese products are analogues with inferiority, law quality, short life and sort of use and throw away concept like a condom!

    Under the UNP government the Chinese Model was given due place its products were worthy of: pavement vendors sold Chinese Model products like tools, toys and fancy goods etc. and the things that really mattered and commanded greater stability, robustness, longevity, reliability, efficiency and accuracy were originated from Western Model countries like Japan, US, UK, Germany, France etc. The railway engines, medical equipment, massive irrigation systems, electricity generation projects and machinery etc. originated from such reliable countries and even today those branded products continue to perform preserving their good name credentials.

    Quite in contrast however look what this rogue regime has delivered to its people through the Chinese Model–the Norochcholai Power Plant, Hambanthota Harbour, the world’s narrowest Southern Highway, massive debt burden at exorbitant interest rates etc. China Model have endowed unfortunate masses of this land bonuses like, impunity, bribery, degradation of human rights, provision of gadgetry to State for eavesdropping on its citizens and blocking of internet sites that are critical of State’s anti-nation measures; in short Chinese Model has taken Sri Lanka captive through massive debts and zero output or rather wasteful fruitless White Elephant projects to maintain its geo-political strategic interests! The country is plunging into an ever so greater power crisis, the cost of electricity is massive, and the Chinese Model has given a massive loan to the government but to be repaid by the people at massive rate, yet electricity prices are rising day by day because Chinese Model has failed to deliver!!! So this is the nature of Chinese Model. They really do not want this country to be developed but rather want it to be under their control subjugation exploitation and manipulation so that they can maneuver this country according to their economic political and security requirements in the global landscape.

    Not that Chinese Model does not have superior technology and knowhow to turn out superb products, in fact they do produce quality products which are not in relevance here. What is reality is that the present regime has failed to negotiate advantageous terms when dealing with Chinese Model; they have simply given in to Chinese aspirations geo-political maneuvers and machinations.

    In the same vein Chinese Model has what is known as “50-cents Party”, a collection of internet message board commentators hired by the government to shape and sway public opinion in favour of the government and who are highly despised by the ordinary masses due to their laundry operations for the government Sri Lanka too has bone suckers of the Rajapaksha regime like Max Silva, suz, Kalu Albert, sjv chelvanayakam, Chetty and others breeding like ants and writing various hilarious jokes and rubbish criticizing those who write the truth and disseminating utter lies to prop up the collapsing regime. According to them Western countries are devils and Chinese Model countries are gods. The question is it is the devil who is speaking and demanding to follow and honour human rights, justice, democracy and universal law which is the language of god whereas their brand of god is dumfounded on those real issues of the nation! This is Madamulana politics and nothing else!

    • 0

      I can understand your fury on the early departure of your beloved terror lord Velu.Writing long stupid replies will not make Velu walk again.You may write kilometers of nonsense stuff as in the case of ole Doc Brian.But pl don’t waste our time.Just write,”I hate Rajapakse for what he did to our hero Velu”.That’s more than enough.By the way what are your plans for May 19th celebrations?As usual we’ll be having the military parade on the Galle face green.How about you?At least can’t you fellows organize some sort of lost parade?You could hire the big brass band from AF Raymonds in Borella which is just a stone’s throw away from the Kanatha.If you need any help let me know.I will throw in a couple of bottles for your big brass band.

  • 0

    Hay [Edited out] Max Silva, there is no difference between you and the Nandikadal ended terrorist Prabakaran. While Prabakaran killed innocent people physically with guns and bullets, you kill the soul of Sri Lanka through your filthy lies. We have a strong suspicion of your breeding, whether it is homosapien, k9 or swine; your filthy comments point to buffaloes. We hate Rajapakshas not because what he did to the killer Prabakaran but due to what he did to General Fonseka, the people of this country, to democracy, the destruction of law and order, the plundering of national wealth, white vannings, the economic assassination of the country and all the rackets and waste that this war criminal is doing in the country in connivance with the pimps like you! Where the f..k are you going to celebrate your f……g military parade after your rogue king has sold the galle face green to stupid Chinese? Last one you licked in a jungle in Anuradhapura, next one you would have to celebrate in Kilinochchi the terrorist’s capital because your hora king can’t go to Anuradhapura now after Dayatakirula fiasco and deception.

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