Chinese Friction

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North Korea’s missile launches this week effectively put the last nail in the coffin of the Six Party talks for now, along with any attempt at bringing the US and China back to the table on North Korea. At least we got a little warning: Hillary Clinton’s frank comments pretty much signalled the US perspective on a key issue in the US-China relationship.

More broadly, the launches dangerously up the ante in the North Asian Security stakes. It also reflects the dangerous trajectory of US-China relations as China extends its reach, generating friction as its interests come into conflict with those of US global supremacy on an increasing number of fronts.

For months now there have been claims and counter-claims between the US and China over North Korea and the did-they-or-didn’t-they missile tests. While all but advocating "regime change" (and obviously hoping the health of North Korea’s Kim Jong-il takes a turn for the worse), America has been clear about what it sees as Chinese intransigence on the issue of a nuclear North Korea. China claims the "Dear Leader" has Cliff Young endurance and will be around for a long time yet — and insists it was trying to get everyone back to the table.

The latest missile tests only reinforce the positions of both powers: for China, that the North Korean issue is a tool of US hawkish foreign policy makers who wish to use the North for their own broader security agendas (read: monitoring/containing China to restrict its rise as a peer competitor); and for the US, that China is not serious about cracking down on its close ally and strategic neighbour’s nuclear aspirations, and is using the North to send signals to Washington.

The disparity in positions is largely reflective of the host of issues that trouble what is currently the world’s most important relationship. As China challenges the US-dominated international status quo, it faces some critical challenges as it attempts to avoid the fate of other rising powers of the 20th Century, notably Germany and Japan.

The first big issue is how the US, as the reigning superpower, will deal with China — and the direction of US policy towards China under a Barack Obama-led administration. It’s a question Chinese analysts are themselves asking.

Past US administrations have often "gone hard" on China during their election campaigns, then swiftly softened their tone once in office (at least officially). George W Bush came in promising to be tough on China and took a hard line over Taiwan, but changed quickly after the September 11 attacks. China was officially no longer the focus, although trade, human rights and currency manipulation issues continued to dominate US-China relations. And of course, geopolitically, China had to constantly deal with US unilateral power.

Bill Clinton also talked tough on China prior to his election in 1992 — but while his administration saw the fraught Most Favoured Nation negotiations between China and the US, the US bombing of China’s Serbian embassy and the dangerous stand off in the Taiwan Strait, essentially the rhetoric was about "engagement". This is in spite of talk of mixing engagement with elements of containment, referred to by some as "congagement". (And Clinton was publicly excoriated by Republicans and in the press for allegedly getting too close to the Chinese.)

It seems that while the US leadership has got mileage out of tough talk with their strategic competitor, they couldn’t resist engaging with China as a trading partner. But now the gloves are coming off in many crucial areas, and it remains to be seen whether China turns "protectionist" or "militaristic" in response to a possible hardening of the US’s position against it (as has happened in past decades in the cases of Japan and Germany).

The second major issue is the economic crisis. China has let it be known that it thinks the US’s lack of fiscal discipline led to the current economic situation and throughout the G20 and Boao Forum pushed for reform of the international system. It floated the idea of a new international currency, an idea that has so far been largely rejected by Western countries. Meanwhile, other countries are looking to see how they might be better off using the Chinese currency for trade instead of the US Dollar.

While the idea of a "G2" consisting of the US and China, floated by former US national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, has taken the fancy of some Chinese scholars, the reality is that the Obama administration hasn’t suggested anything concrete except the strategic and economic dialogue set up for the summer.

Behind the Chinese scholars’ enthusiasm is the belief by some in China that the US needs China’s help during these economic dark times — specifically the help it provides by continuing to buy US treasury bonds.

The "interdependence" line touted by experts on the interplay between the US and China may well prove to be more accurate than previously imagined — just how it plays out on the economic stage is still debated, both in China and beyond.

The third area is human rights. Despite often being considered a "soft issue" in international relations, there is no doubt about the power of the human rights issue as a way for foreign powers to exert pressure upon a nation by influencing global sentiment — especially if you are an aspiring world player like China. New Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may not have said anything about the issue on her China trip (much to the chagrin of human rights advocates) but the US did release a timely statement just after the visit — which provoked an in-kind response from China.

Human rights will inevitably cause further problems in the relationship for a few reasons, one of these being the subtle damage it does to China’s positioning itself as a key trading partner for the rest of the world during a delicate economic period. The Dalai Lama’s decision to visit France in June doesn’t help with that — China has always valued Europe as an alternative avenue of engagement with the West outside of its US relationship, but while left-leaning Europeans might have historically displayed a soft spot for China, their current leaders — Sarkozy in particular — have not.

China will continue to view the human rights issue as one being used unfairly against it — discrediting its "peaceful rise" rhetoric — and will remain highly suspicious of the timing of visits and pronouncements. China still maintains the policy of "non interference" in the issues of other states and expects others to respect its sovereignty (outlined by the French visit).

Nonetheless, Tibet and the western provinces remain vulnerabilities in this department, and will continue to draw criticism — though how much the Obama Administration chooses to make of them remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the US claims that China is not acting on human rights concerns in Sudan, although China maintains it is working in unison with US goals — but through "alternative channels".

The fourth key issue is Taiwan. This relationship flashpoint is bound to get interesting as the US refuses to back down from its arms sales to Taiwan. These sales don’t help contradict Chinese perceptions that the US is subtly or not-so-subtly undermining the "One China" policy. The current "strategic ambiguity" status quo allows America to strategically hedge — a lot — and arms sales only fuel fears in Beijing that the US isn’t serious about preventing Taiwan officially seceding from the rest of China, and — in one unattractive scenario from a Chinese perspective — compromising its maritime defences and acting as a forward base for Western force projection into China.

The fifth issue is the West’s current adventure in Afghanistan/Pakistan. The Chinese ask: Will this be Obama’s war? Since Washington announced the new plan for the two countries, there has been a big question around what this means for China, a close ally of Pakistan. The US might talk about wanting China to contribute to what it sees as a "solution" in the region, but some in China are wary. With Pakistan and Afghanistan bordering China, the idea of "extremists" causing trouble would complicate Chinese regional posturing and potentially threaten their economic interests in both countries.

On top of these flashpoints, maritime incidents in the Pacific could further increase tensions between the two powers and it will be interesting to see how any future spats are handled. The delicate issue of Exclusive Economic Zones and access to important shipping lanes makes any maritime friction crucial problems for both powers.

And then there are, of course, the matters of China’s aspirations for its space program, arguments over intellectual property, US concern over China’s lack of military transparency and US reticence in allowing the transfer of advanced technology to China.

If China and the US are going to get through these issues during the next few years without a significant deterioration in relations, dialogue and crisis management will have to take precedence over knee-jerk reactions. Hopefully the new US administration and the leaders in Beijing are already creating that framework to prevent anything stupid occurring — G2 or no G2.

New Matilda

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