Managing U.S.-China policy

Marco Vicenzino Contributor
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Despite the diplomatically cordial meeting between the US and Chinese leaders and China’s likely decision to modify its currency, political pressure in Congress, and other quarters, for a more aggressive China policy is mounting. Beyond currency manipulation, various other issues continue to generate fierce debate on the increasingly complex and troubled U.S.-China relationship.

Emerging strengthened from the global recession with greater international leverage, China’s rhetoric grew increasingly hostile and unnecessarily provocative. It has seriously risked overplaying its hand. It threatens to destabilize much of Asia, already wary of rapid Chinese growth, and undermine volatile bilateral relations with the U.S. Furthermore, such rhetoric can only fuel greater uncertainty in a fragile world struggling to recover from economic turbulence.

Since the U.S. extended full diplomatic recognition to mainland China in 1979, certain rules of engagement prevailed. It was understood that Taiwan would not declare independence, the mainland would not invade, and the U.S. would provide for Taiwan’s security, as required by U.S. law. Unification would take place by mutual consent at an undetermined future date. Furthermore, U.S. presidents regularly met with the Dalai Lama since 1991 expressing support for Tibetans’ cultural and religious freedoms but not an independent Tibet.

With greater self-confidence, or rather over-confidence, China has been challenging these traditional standard operating procedures. This was clearly on display when President Barack Obama recently met the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader. The customary Chinese reaction of disapproval was replaced by a rhetorically aggressive overreaction. In addition, the usual sale of largely defensive weapons to Taiwan was met with unusually harsher threats.

President Obama must firmly stand his ground. Failure to do so will only embolden the Chinese to defy and strong-arm others. Caving in will only make the Asia-Pacific region, and wider world, a less safe place.

There is a fundamental need for continuous engagement, improving dialogue, avoiding animosity and developing greater collective initiatives. President Obama’s threat of sanctions in late 2009 over tires for political gain with his trade union constituents unnecessarily risked triggering a trade war. On the other hand, direct Chinese threats against American interests, including Boeing over the Taiwan issue, are simply counterproductive and must not be tolerated. Both sides must avert confrontation due to the catastrophic consequences for all.

In either public or private, China will not take orders from the U.S. or anyone else. Not only did Obama’s rhetorical magic not work in China, he received a public dressing down by Chinese officials. It was simply a reminder of new global realities. Ultimately, no one will tame China. It must tame itself, for its own benefit and interest and for the sake of international stability. However, others must not stand by idly. Collective influence must be exerted when necessary. China must not be diplomatically spared on the Iran nuclear issue. Mounting multilateral pressure must continue. Should greater Russian support for sanctions materialize, China risks being isolated among the U.N. Security Council’s Permanent Five.

A paradoxical dualism emerges in Chinese rhetoric. On the one hand, its officials sulk in reminding others that China is still a poor nation struggling to develop. On the other hand, its eagerness to throw its weight around exudes Soviet-era bravado.

Greater economic interdependence and convergence of interests have inevitably drawn together the destinies of both countries, including the wider international community. Consumers globally have benefited with access to less expensive Chinese products. Yet the livelihoods of millions have disappeared causing serious dislocation and animosity toward China, particularly from developing countries, many who simultaneously benefit from Chinese investment.

China’s rapid military buildup largely targets U.S. influence. Yet China has benefited immensely from the safe passage of resources and free flow of commerce that has fuelled its growth since 1980. The U.S. Navy, and particularly its Seventh Fleet, has provided this security by continuously patrolling shipping lanes from the Persian Gulf to East Asia. China’s lack of military transparency risks greater instability and a regional nuclear arms race, particularly with India. Arguably, it is already under way.

Just as global trade largely depends on the stability of the high seas, the internet requires a secure environment for the efficient flow of daily transactions and correspondences worldwide. Thus far, China has failed to adequately address the countless cyber-attacks emanating from its territory on western targets, primarily private and public sector critical infrastructure. This poses a real threat to national and international security and global commerce. U.S. foreign policy must continuously insist on greater Chinese accountability.

The hope that western commercial engagement would somehow bring about political liberalization in China has largely faded away. China will not become a western-style democracy anytime soon, and perhaps never will. Any change will ultimately come from within. External influence will be minimal at most and provoke a reaction at least. China’s evolution will take place within the context of its own historical development. Collective interests will trump individual rights, particularly as determined by the Communist party which aims to preserve its power through “harmonious” development. Western pressure and demands for greater transparency and accountability in its commercial interests, particularly protection of intellectual property rights, must be unyielding. It means jobs and security.

Violations of human rights and minority rights must be condemned but expectations of what can be achieved must be kept in check. On this, be prepared for the long haul. The overlap and balance between profit and civil liberties will inevitably remain a lingering challenge, and at times prove irreconcilable. Google’s re-location to Hong Kong, which risks foregoing enormous revenues, will not be the first and final story of its kind.

Marco Vicenzino is director of the Global Strategy Project in Washington, D.C. He provides global political risk analysis for corporations and regular commentary on foreign affairs for publications/media outlets worldwide. He can be reached at msv@globalsp.org.