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How Much can Sino-US Relations Freeze?

Sino-American relations have always been a roller – coaster ride. Henry Kissinger made his famous breakthrough with Mao Zedong in 1971 with his secret flight to Beijing from Pakistan. The second part of the cold war saw close clandestine co-operation between the two countries to contain the Soviet Union which ultimately collapsed. But the Tien An Men (TAM) square crackdown on pro-democracy student activists in Beijing in 1989 led to a freezing of relations with the US and the West clamping sanctions on China on absence of human rights. There were other challenges like US arms sales to Taiwan, “accidental” bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 2001 and others. Most of them were short lived except for some military transfer elements of the TAM sanctions.

The current confrontation between the two sides, however, belongs to a different genre. It appears to be growing into an issue of global power and China’s challenge to what China perceives as the US led “global system”. If this is correct, as it seems to be from the positions adopted by the two countries in the last few months, it is a matter of serious concern.

Stephen J. Hadley, former National Security Advisor (NSA) under the Bush administration and currently with the US Institute of Peace (USIP), Washington D.C., asked the Chinese authorities some very sharp and penetrating questions. Hadley was in Beijing in early March for the “Third US-China Project on Crisis Avoidance and Co-operation Track 1.5 Conference”. This bilateral conference is designed to address intractable issues between the two countries at a lower than government levels so that ideas can be stated frankly without giving them official status of exchange. Hadley was obviously conveying concerns of the US government and Congress.

In his address (March 08), after detailing US perceptions on Sino-US relations and divergence, Hadley asked for answers to the following questions: (a) whether China wants US to vacate the Western Pacific, and the need to resume military contacts (b) need to reassure the world about how China intends to use its new power and influence (c) would China help develop the less developed countries from which it was extracting natural resources (d) foreign businesses and investors need the safety of their intellectual property, and will not be forced out when Chinese companies achieve their own development, and (e) will China take a free ride on countering security challenges in its dealings with proliferating states, failed and failing states, and terrorist groups.

This is, perhaps, the widest and sharpest open US questions to China for decades. Hadley’s speech was not the usual single issues like Taiwan, Tibet, human rights, proliferation and such others. It was a composite message which the Chinese leaders have taken seriously and are still searching for answers.

The US had its own interests for helping and encouraging China to grow unfettered in the last three decades. The primary interest was economic. Statistically speaking, it saw the China market grow from one billion consumers to 1.3 billion consumers. China’s cheap labour force attracted American businesses who shifted their manufacturing base for consumer goods there, though the technology transferred was hardly what the Chinese wanted. Yet, it created jobs for the Chinese and enabled it to singularly capture the largest share of the global consumer market, and the Chinese were happy. Now the Chinese are making operations of many American companies difficult, and a recent survey shows a majority of American companies feel they are no longer wanted there.

Politically, friendly Sino-US relation was helping denuclearization of North Korea, given China’s influence with Pyongyang. The US wanted and still continues to persuade China to help curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Beijing was also used as a counter to Russia – at least that is what the US thought. All these things are beginning to unravel quickly. China played the US and North Korea against each other. It is reluctant to move on Iran, given its huge interest in Iran’s oil and gas in which it invested in billion dollar terms. Now the US finds it is better to negotiate with Russia on security and strategic weapons reduction issues given the fact that a number of NATO countries are not inclined to deterioration of relations with Russia in their own interest.

While the US got bogged down in its misadventure in Iraq and then in Afghanistan, earning opprobrium from the Muslim countries in the Middle East, West Asia and Africa, China has been quietly forging its way in these areas. Apart from raping these less developed countries of their resources with lollipops, Beijing has enjoined its support on issues like human rights abuses in the United Nations bodies, like the UNHCR, against the US. The US is suddenly discovering the cumulative effect of all these things on its influence.

In the President Bill Clinton era (1992-2000), China was really pampered by the US. Despite very serious transgressions by China including military and military technology espionage, as well as commercial espionage, China was allowed to get away.

The perception of an “Arrogant China” that threatens everyone who does not bow to its wishes has not only gained ground very quickly, but has become a reality to reckon with.

Circumstantial evidence suggests that the old established rule that “the Party commands the gun” may be changing in certain foreign policy areas into “the gun commands the Party”. On the ground evidence appear to make it clear that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Central Military Commission (CMC) hold the prime position when crafting policies with regard to the US, neighbouring countries and territorial issues like with India and the South China Sea, and Japan. This is, perhaps, because successive party chiefs like Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, who also hold the position of the head of the CMC, have used the PLA in their power politics. It must be noted that the PLA has not allowed a second civilian in the CMC as Vice Chairman. Such power for military makes for a dangerous situation for regional and global stability.

The shift in power to the Chinese military was noticed as far back as 2004. Party General Secretary, Hu Jintao, who had just come into power was trying to counter the influence of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, in politics and the armed forces by giving more power to the PLA. That is when theories like “Rise of China”, and suggestions of discarding Deng Xiaoping’s policy of “hide your strength and bide your time” came to the fore. A theory was floated that China must control the region from West Asia, Central Asia, Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific. A recent book written by two senior Colonels “China’s Dreams” on countering the US, was published by the PLA Publishing House, giving it the stamp of approval.

China tested its “arrogance” with Japan on the East China Sea island territories with gunboat diplomacy, used the same instrument in the South China Sea with neighbouring claimants, and with India on the sovereignty of Arunachal Pradesh.

Having extracted an apology from French President Sarkozy on the Dalai Lama issue, and similarly with Germany in last two years, it decided to test the US.

China’s official bulletin board, the CCP mouthpiece, the People’s Daily (March 19) was brought in by the Beijing leadership to try and explain to the US in particular and the world in general that their international behaviour in the recent past was normal, but was being deliberately misconstrued as “arrogant”. The article written by the newspaper’s senior desk editor Ding Gang pleaded that this new theory was as “lethal” as the ‘China threat theory” and seriously hurt its image.

Ding Gang argued that what China was asking for was no different from what it spoke about before, that is, protection of its core interests like sovereignty and territorial integrity. The “arrogant” China charge he added meant that some people in the west did not want China to grow and wanted to retain the US led global system.

An article of this type under the by line of a senior editor of the newspaper clearly reflects the serious concern of the Chinese top leadership.

Especially since 2008 China started to push the international community on many major issues. In 2009 the display of their military power encouraged their spokesmen especially from the armed forces to claim that China was now in a position to dictate regional and international developments.

Top Chinese leaders were not far behind in their display of arrogance. US President Barack Obama was slighted when he visited China, and was roundly insulted by Premier Wen Jiabao at the Copenhagen climate change conference late November, last year. To push the knife even deeper in America’s side, the official Chinese media gloated over this incident.

On more concrete issues a trade war erupted between the two countries mainly because of China’s refusal to allow their currency (Yuan) to rise to the real value against the US dollar. China’s exports are also under valued. A combination of these developments and the Chinese cyber attack on the Google internet company in China made things worse. Google was not only subjected to censorship laws, but cyber attacks searched for vital personal information on individuals and for stealing intellectual property. Google has withdrawn from China followed by two other American net companies.

But the Google incident has upset many Chinese who feel handicapped. China’s net users now number around 400 million and are projected to rise to 500 million next year. That is a lot of people to be unhappy, though not necessarily the whole lot. With pressure for more freedom and transparency on the rise inside the country, it will have to be seen for how long the leadership can control the situation through hard instruments like arrests, jailing and dismissal from jobs.

Over the last two years India has been at the receiving end of Chinese arrogance and veiled threats. Visiting Chinese officials including their ambassador in Nepal are on record inciting Nepali politicians against India. They even went on to attack Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for visiting Arunachal Pradesh, an Indian state which China claims is a disputed territory. Finally, India had to politely but firmly draw the line. China has backed off, but only temporarily.

China is now in a very difficult situation with the USA and is trying everything possible including losing some “face”, to retrieve the situation. The US Congress is considering a motion to declare China a “currency manipulator”, a label that could seriously not only damage its international image, but hurt its credibility in global commerce. Something like this could ruin China economically and politically.

Chinese propaganda till recently was flooded with threatening claims that it was up to the US to repair the damage in bilateral relations or else the US will suffer. But the position has changed drastically and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is in the forefront trying repair the damage. It is not usual for the Chinese to come down from the “Son of heaven” pedestal.

China would be very welcome to be a responsible stake holder in global affairs. It had its chance and will have more. But its proclivity to try and dominate and make unrealistic demands on others, to construct and concoct territorial claims by fabricating history will be difficult to achieve in an increasingly globalized world. It is time that China discarded its “Central Kingdom” fixation and mesmerizing itself about its power. That well help stability for all including China. It has spoiled relations with too many important countries, some which are visible and some not. Even the sole super power, the US, has realised that in today’s world collective strength is greater than individual power. And China is not as powerful as it thought.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst with many years of experience. He can be reached at grouchohart@yahoo.com)

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