Nothing new about China’s ‘new’ assertiveness

Kelley Currie Contributor
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Another round of navel-gazing about China’s “new” assertiveness and how the United States should respond to it is under way.

Recent events, such as the Chinese government’s extreme reaction to the Obama administration’s recent announcement of a modest arms deal for Taiwan, as well as Beijing’s hyperventilating response to a range of other recent U.S. “provocations,” have sparked a new set of questions over how the U.S. should respond. Any serious answer should start with recognition that China’s behavior is not new, and that the Western world bears a large share of responsibility for the fact that it has reached its current level of hubris and antagonism. Only when the United States and other countries recognize that they are China’s enablers in irresponsibility, will they be able to craft more appropriate and effective policy responses to China’s rise and its subsequent increased propensity to throw its weight around.

When the Obama administration announced the long-awaited arms package for Taiwan, Beijing responded with the usual howls of outrage, and quickly moved to take the expected steps of suspending of military-to-military exchanges and delaying the next session of the U.S.-China human-rights dialogue. China’s threatened sanctions against U.S. manufacturers involved in the arms deal, on the other hand, were widely viewed as taking retaliation to a new, more serious level. Likewise the hysterical warning from Beijing that a meeting between President Obama and the dalai lama, expected to happen later this month, would “seriously undermine the political foundation of Sino-US relations,” and the war of words that has between Beijing and Washington over Google’s threat to quit China over various cyber-shenanigans, have furthered a storyline of growing tensions in what both sides often grandiosely refer to as the “most important bilateral relationship in the world.” The heavy dose of anonymous quotes from “senior administration officials” in news stories on China’s aggressive posturing indicates that the Obama administration, for whatever reason, supports this narrative on some level.

While there certainly has been a marked increase of noise in the system, these events and others in recent months have served on deeper level to highlight the fundamental instability of relations between the world’s most powerful democracy and a large authoritarian would-be superpower. While Chinese officials have never been shy about expressing their feelings when the U.S. does something that upsets them, American policy-makers of both parties —whether experienced on China or new to dealings with Beijing—have frequently exhibited a strange tendency to excuse and even reward behavior by Chinese officials that would not be tolerated coming from any other quarter. This accommodating behavior is generally combined with an ability to disaggregate the Chinese regime into two separate entities—a valued international economic and political power on one hand and a repressive authoritarian one-party police state whose treatment of its own citizens is largely irrelevant. The past year has been an object lesson in how dangerous and silly these irrational views of China have turned out to be.

The administration’s hair-twisting over the exposure—and denial of the existence—of the deep fault-lines in the U.S.-China relationship perfectly illustrates now not to respond to such bullying from China authoritarians. After months of reinforcing bad behavior by intentionally showing deference and tolerance toward growing Chinese intransigence and irresponsibility abroad, and apathy about China’s increased repression at home, the Obama team seemed completely taken off guard by—and went out of their way to downplay—Beijing’s hard-ball tactics during both President Obama’s trip to China and the climate talks in Copenhagen.

Having allowed the pendulum of engagement to swing so far toward appeasement that Beijing feels entitled to be as bad as it wants to, the administration finds its ability to pull things back toward a more balanced policy is constrained. They now find their relatively mild protests and attempts to do things that past administrations were able to manage as routine difficulties of the relationship producing outsized reactions from a Chinese regime that has gotten unaccustomed to American pressure and criticism. Yet the Obama administration still seems unable to acknowledge the mistake of their too-delicate handling of Chinese sensitivities. Instead, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others keep characterizing the U.S.-China relationship as “mature” and “strategic” while Beijing simultaneous makes explicit that it really is no such thing.

While it may be awkward for a while, the Obama administration should resist this temptation to paper over the real and fundamental differences between the United States and China by treating these manifestations of them as mere “bumps in the road.” Instead, they need to do the harder thing and commit to an intellectually and practically consistent policy that is based on China as it is—not through the lens of hype about what it may become or wants others to see—and dispenses with the delusion that China’s authoritarian behavior at home is unconnected to its behavior in the international community. While such an approach would inevitably bring more turmoil in the near term as China reacted against new baselines in the relationship, in the long term it would contribute to a more stable relationship. It would also have the happy benefit of taking better account of American values and interests, and ultimately would earn the respect and support of the American people.

Kelley Currie is a Fellow with the Project 2049 Institute, working on issues related to democracy, human rights and the rule of law in the Asia-Pacific region. She has served as Special Assistant to the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs and Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues at the U.S. Department of State, a senior advisor to the International Committee of the Red Cross; director of government relations for the International Campaign for Tibet; and deputy director for Asia at the International Republican Institute. From 1995-1999, Ms. Currie was foreign policy advisor to Congressman John Porter (R-IL), and concurrently served as the majority staff director of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus.