Saturday, June 19, 2010

China's rise to great power status is moving along steadily, and US policymakers are acknowledging it publicly.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made the following comment at a June 16th Hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommitee on Defense (in response to a question about arms sales to Taiwan from Senator Dianne Feinstein):

And I was struck by an article in the local press in Singapore following that session. Somebody asked one of these Chinese generals or some Chinese general -- it may not have been one present -- "You guys have known about these sales for decades. Why all of a sudden are you raising such a stink about them?" And -- and this general's response was, "We had to accept it when we were weak. We are no longer weak."
China has a long history of being pushed around by Western powers. It was "opened" by the British in the mid-19th Century (when the British acquired Hong Kong), and subsequently maintained as an open trading partner by force by various Western powers, including the US. As an underdeveloped country lacking economic and military power, China was (mostly) forced to accept the terms dictated to it by others.

Since China became the state we know today, it has espoused an ideology of "peaceful rising." In a nutshell, China knows it deserves a place among the great powers, but won't ruffle any feathers along the way.

Recently however, China has begun to assert itself. Its actions at the Copenhagen climate conference and its stance towards the sinking of the South Korean navy corvette Cheonan have alienated would-be partners, and have amounted to a policy that Daniel Drezner describes (diplomatically) as "Pissing Off as Many Countries As Possible."

Given this trend, how should the US address China today and in its future policies?

For starters, it's important that the US and China understand each other and have effective bilateral communication. Even countries that disagree vehemently can avoid conflict when they understand the other's perspective and have an effective way to communicate during crises. This was the point of the US-Soviet red phone during the Cold War - after the Cuban Missile Crisis it was considered of paramount importance that the US President and Soviet Premier be able to communicate directly in minutes.

Secretary Gates' June 16th testimony offered another insight, courtesy of his long career in the intelligence field:
Because in my experience with the Soviet Union, I don't know if the strategic arms talks ever really achieved much arms control. But the one thing I do know is that over a 25-year period, we -- we gained a very good understanding of each other's approach and strategy when it came to nuclear weapons, nuclear strategy and so on. And I believe deeply that it helped avoid miscalculations and misunderstandings.
The US and China need to develop a similar relationship and understanding, not just to avoid any chance of the tit-for-tat escalatory crises that characterized the early years of the Cold War, but also to forge a partnership to collectively address global and regional issues.

Despite Chinese protests, the US should not drop its support for Taiwan. Nor should it stop engagement with the Dalai Lama. Hypocrisy and backtracking aren't good. But the US should keep pushing for more connections with Chinese policymakers. The Chinese cancellation of a recent visit by Secretary Gates is troubling, but that should only increase the urgency of establishing more communication. In keeping with the campaign promises of this Administration to never fear to negotiate, the US should push for more talks with China.

China and the US sometimes agree, and sometimes disagree, but understanding which is which, and why, is crucial as we enter an era when China knows it is "no longer weak." Perhaps its time for a presidential visit?


Post a Comment

Share This! (the gift that keeps on giving)

Latest Analysis

Search This Blog