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The US-China Scrap: Seeking New Rules for engagement

When a Chinese expert in Beijing complains that the US wants their help in a multitude of issues ranging from the North Korean nuclear question to resolving the Afghanistan problem, but counter China in matters relating to crucial sovereignty issues like Taiwan and Tibet among others, he has a point from China’s national perspective. But when China resorts to unrestricted warfare, the game changes. In the space of last one month, sharp exchange of words and acrimony replaced the win-win bonhomie seen in 2009 between the two sides. When US President Barack Obama visited China last November, he declared China as strategic partner rather than strategic competitor described by his predecessor, President George W. Bush. Mr. Obama almost handed over the managership of South Asia to China, a gesture seen in India as an affront and disregard to Indian concerns. He declined to meet the Dalai Lama before his China visit. Till that time, the new president of the United States held up all military transfers to Taiwan, and skimmed over issues like human rights and Tibet. Mr. Obama got a bad press back home. In a way, he was doing something in China quite different to what his Secretary of State did on an earlier visit to the region. Ms. Clinton signalled a US back to Asia message, while Mr. Obama was seen to be agreeing that East Asia, South East Asia and South Asia were China’s backyard.

The common perception of China-US observers in Hong Kong and the region was that the Obama administration was willing to give all to Chinese, hoping Beijing would support US on various difficult issues, especially Iran’s nuclear programme and climate change. The “Group of Two” or G-2 (USA and China as the world’s top two) came from the USA. Senator Barack Obama was a totally new person for China as the President of the United States. As a Senator, Mr. Obama had not made that kind of impression on Beijing as presidential hopeful Senator John Macain did. A decorated veteran of the Vietnam war, Mr. Macain was a force in American politics on foreign policy issues of strategic nature, and he was aggressive.

President George W. Bush, the father of the past 9/11 Afghan military solution policy, and the nemesis of Saddam Hussain, had some hard issues with China. He started his first presidency with the policy of “engage China economically, counter Chinese militarily”. The Iraq invasion finally proved to be conducted under concocted intelligence, created a much more dangerous Iraq to the world, and shifted American focus away from China. Notwithstanding the adventures or misadventures, Mr. George W. Bush had the determination to do what he wanted. This was something the Chinese were concerned about.

Strategic analysts in Beijing and Shanghai, and the leadership team in Zhongnanhai, studied Mr. Obama for almost a year. The 45th President of the USA was engulfed in serious democratic issues like the economic melt down and the health care bill. But he had also inherited much of his predecessor’s foreign policy miscalculations.

Perhaps, the Chinese establishment underestimated that President Obama’s dependence on wide public opinion in the US. Secretary of State Clinton’s relationship with China goes back to her husband President Bill Clinton’s China policy, especially in his second term. That was high point of US-China relations. Washington cleared China for WTO membership, China’s military and high technology espionage were swept under the carpet, Mr. Clinton was the first and only US President to state the “Three Nos” (No two Chinas, no one China one Taiwan, no independence) on Taiwan from the China’s soil, and enjoined China to criticize India’s May, 1998 nuclear tests. But Ms. Hillary Clinton is subject to American public concerns over a fitful government foreign policy, hoping China has joined the global mainstream because of its market economy.

When China’s paramount leader Comrade Deng Xiaoping declared opening up to the outside world, conduct capitalist type of business with a new public sector – private sector market economy, the capitalist west saw in this a move in Beijing towards Westernization. Comrade Deng’s quip that “It does not matter whether cat is black or white as long at is catches mice”, was widely misinterpreted as the country’s paramount leader had turned liberal. Comrade Deng was no liberal as he demonstrated with the bloody crack down on student agitation in 1989. Comrade Deng’s aim was to maximize China’s development with international exchanges, and nothing more. It, however, appears the current leaders in Beijing may be seeing an opportunity to surge ahead. China appears to be confident to take on the US, and the US administration paved the way for them.

The president of the world most powerful democracy, Barack Obama, appears to have displayed some personal and institutional weakness. After embarking on a hectic global agenda, he showed some visible hesitations. It happened in the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan’ /Pakistan.

The Chinese leaders tested out President Obama during his November, 2009 and concluded that he could be psychologically pushed and projected as a weak president of a weakening super power. His talk and question answer session to a CCP selected Chinese students groups in Shanghai was edited and not broadcast country-wide. His interview with the media was only with the Southern Metropolis of Guangdong, and other media were prohibited from publishing the interview. The interview hardly saw the light of the day.

For any visiting head of state or head of government, such treatment from the host country would be considered an affront if not deliberate insult. The Obama administration not only swallowed the insult, but Obama kept off issues which the US holds at its claim to work for democracy, religious freedom and human rights.

These developments apparently encouraged China to take such a belligerent and challenging posture against the USA relating to the US decision to sell $6.4 billion arms to Taiwan, especially Patriot Advanced Capacity-3 (PAC-3) anti-missile systems and Black Hawk attack helicopters. The other issue was the forthcoming meeting between President Obama and the Dalai Lama. The protest against the Obama-Dalai Lama meeting may be in a sense, old rhetoric. Obama had clearly told President Hu Jintao during his visit that he would be meeting the Dalai Lama. But from the Chinese point of view, this meeting may interfere with Beijing’s new initiative on the Tibet issue and with Tibetans both inside and outside China. The 5th Tibet Work Conference (January 18, Beijing) chaired by President Hu Jintao laid a ten-year development plan for Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), and Tibetan areas outside TAR. They held the 9th round of talks with the Dalai Lama’s envoys in Beijing (Jan.30-31) and kept the door open for further talks.

What marked the 9th round of the Chinese authorities – Dalai Lama envoy meeting was the respectful references to the Dalai Lama by the Chinese side. This was clearly unprecedented, though the Chinese did not give an inch on the Dalai Lama’s demand for real autonomy for Tibet. The Chinese hope that with their new initiative they may be able to win over the Tibetans. A new Chinese strategic initiative noticed last year was to try and isolate the Dalai Lama internationally and among Tibetans. They reacted strongly against French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, downgraded relations with France, and pulled out of annual China-EU meeting as France was holding the EU Presidency. They are trying to carry forward the same aggressive policy with President Obama and the US. Beijing has opened up all stops against this meeting, but needless to say they will be disappointed.

More serious, however, is China’s threat to sanction US companies involved in the supply of the new arms package to Taiwan. Companies under Chinese scanner include Rayethon and Boeing. This is the first time the Chinese have openly declared sanction against foreign companies, which again speaks on growing Chinese assertiveness. Beijing has been working with Taiwan’s KMT government headed by Ma Ying Jeou, to expand multilevel contacts and trade, and open confrontations have reduced significantly. It is noteworthy that China is yet to berate Taiwan over the arms import. Yet, China’s military deployment including medium range missiles targetting Taiwan have been steadily increasing. This obviously promoted the Taiwanese government to tell Beijing there can be no political or military talks under the present conditions. But to avoid further tension with China, Taiwanese military officials have sent out word that Taipei may not pursue procurement of submarines with the USA.

In another significant posturing, three senior Chinese serving officers told the official publication Liaowang Weekly (Feb.08) that in the wake of the US arms sale to Taiwan, China must increase defence spending and military deployment. One of the officers who spoke to Liaowang, a major policy journal, Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu warned China could attack the US “by oblique means and stealthy feints”, a doctrinal proposal make by two Chinese colonels in a restricted book “unrestricted warfare” a restricted publication of 1999. Zhu suggested economic means including sanctions against US companies and dumping the $800 billion worth US treasury bonds held by China. The “unrestricted warfare” suggested other methods including no-contact warfare, and non-state instruments. Zhu became famous when in 2005 he told reporters that China would use nuclear weapons to retaliate if the US attacked with precision-guided conventional missiles.

The Central Military Commission (CMC) of China, though headed by civilian President Hu Jintao, has enormous clout where security and territorial issues are concerned. It will have to be seen how China brings this round of storm with other USA to a conclusion. But if China goes ahead with selling its holding of US Treasury bonds, it will hurt itself doubly. The value of the bonds will plummet, and in damaging the US economy its exports, on which its economy largely dependent, will be seriously affected. The Chinese are not known to take such risks.

The Beijing leaders seem to have adopted a well used tactic of dividing the USA and Europe in trade and commercial relations. Some Chinese experts are already talking on these lines, opting to purchase Europe’s Air Bus passenger aircraft instead of Boeings.

Saner voices can also be heard advising against uncalculated retaliation. There are clear indications that Beijing is not ready to derail the six-party talks on the North Korean issue. Visits and activities on this issue is on. Beijing has also allowed port call at Hong Kong by USS Nimitz, the main aircraft carrier of the USA’s Pacific Command. This is a very significant signal from China to the US that there is space to work together.

The other issue is the Iran nuclear programme and an UN sanction on Iran initiated by the US. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China is trying to avoid a voting in the council on the question. They have conveyed to the UK they do not support a nuclear armed Iran. On the other hand, China has billions of dollars invested in the Iranian oil and gas sector, and energy security is China’s top most priority. If China vetos the proposed UN sanctions on Iran, it will stand isolated in the UNSC since Russia is also moving the American stand point. If it abstains the UNSC can go forward. But the US and others can side step the UNSC and promulgate their own sanctions. China will lose face all around.

The Chinese posturing has a definite internal political ramification. The leadership cannot sit by and accept US moves on Taiwan and the Dalai Lama which may challenge the edifice of China’s sovereignty and territorial position. There is a real feeling in Beijing that Taiwan, which enjoys international support as a de facto independent country, may acquire a de jure status in time. The Dalai Lama and the Tibet question retains international support. The Chinese perceive that the world prefers a status quo on both these issues, which is detrimental to China’s highest national policy.

Having said that, China’s weaker neighbours including India must take early lessons from what a new powerful and aggressive China may mean to the region in the future. All of them put together are not anywhere as powerful as the USA, and many of them have territorial problems with China.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent analyst based in New

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