Tag: beijing

China Needs a Foreign Policy which Makes Friends

Rising powers tend to be cocky and pushy. They believe their time has arrived and they want their just deserts—now. So it is with China.

Alas, there’s a downside, which Beijing has discovered. Rising powers don’t make many friends.

If you listen to the debate on the U.S. presidential campaign trail—not recommended for the faint-hearted!—you’d think America was a helpless Third World state, besieged by enemies deploying vast armies and armadas. The truth is, the United States dominates the globe. Among its advantages is being allied with every major industrialized state, save China and Russia, and is friendly with many other states as well.

The latter point underscores America’s extraordinary global reach. There are many reasons Washington has so much international clout. Much of this has is because U.S. policy has emphasized making friends and acquiring allies.

There are downsides to this approach. Nevertheless, overall the United States is stronger because it has a cooperative relationship with so many other countries.

In contrast, let’s look at the international response to Beijing’s so-called peaceful rise.

Getting China to Become Tough with North Korea

It is no secret that the United States wants China to take a firmer stance toward its troublesome North Korean ally.  That was true even before the North’s satellite launch/long-range ballistic missile test.  And Chinese officials may be receptive to the argument that steps need to be taken to rein-in Kim Jong-un’s regime, even at the risk of destabilizing his government.  But as I point out in a China-U.S. Focus article getting Beijing to accept the risks entailed in becoming more assertive toward Pyongyang will require some major changes in U.S. policy.

At a minimum, Washington will have to respond favorably to China’s long-standing demand that the United States be willing to engage North Korea in wide ranging negotiations to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula.  Chinese officials are increasingly uneasy about Pyongyang’s behavior, especially the regime’s continued defiance of China’s warnings not to conduct more nuclear weapons or ballistic missile tests.  But Chinese policymakers also still cling to the belief that much of North Korea’s belligerence and recalcitrance is the result of the U.S.-led campaign to isolate the country.  Only by offering a comprehensive settlement to Pyongyang to finally end the state of war on the Peninsula, lift most economic sanctions, and establish diplomatic relations, will Washington convince Beijing that it truly seeks to an equitable outcome.

If the United States makes such a generous offer and Pyongyang rejects it, an already uneasy China will be even more impatient with its North Korean ally.  And China is the one country that can inflict real pain on Kim Jong-un’s regime.  Beijing supplies North Korea with a sizable portion (by some estimates more than half) of its food and energy supplies.  If China severed that link, North Korea would soon face an economic and social crisis.  Beijing has been reluctant to take that risky step for two reasons, however.  First, it could well trigger chaos in North Korea, perhaps bringing down Kim’s regime and leading to massive refugee flows out of North Korea into China.  That is no small concern, but in addition to that headache, Chinese officials worry that the United would seek to exploit such a situation to its geopolitical advantage.

For all of its annoying behavior, North Korea is an important buffer state to China, separating the Chinese homeland from the U.S.-led alliance system in East Asia.  Destabilizing North Korea carries the inherent risk that China might then confront a united Korea on its border—a united Korea in a military alliance with the United States.  Even worse from China’s standpoint, it might have to deal with the presence of U.S. air and naval bases in what is now North Korea.  The buffer would be gone.

Even verbal assurances that the United States has no plans for such bases would provide scant comfort.  Chinese leaders are fully aware that U.S. officials promised their Russian counterparts when the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe evaporated that NATO would not expand eastward.  Today, all of those nations are members of the U.S-led NATO, including several directly on the border of the Russian Federation itself.  Moreover, the United States is building up its forces in the eastern members of the alliance.

Chinese leaders are determined that nothing comparable will take place in Northeast Asia.  They will want something more tangible than an easily forgotten paper promise.  Fortunately, the United States can offer that more tangible guarantee.  Washington’s military alliance with South Korea is a Cold War dinosaur.  It was formed at a time when South Korea was poor, weak and war-ravaged.  Worse, that weak South Korea faced a heavily armed North Korea fully backed by both Moscow and Beijing.  South Korea could not have survived without U.S. protection and massive U.S. aid.

Hu’s Visit and U.S.-China Tensions

Chinese President Hu Jintao arrives in Washington today for a summit meeting with President Obama following spats over economic and military issues that have created a chill in bilateral relations. This follows Secretary Gates’s visit just last week to Beijing for discussions with Defense Ministry officials. On the Huffington Post, I have a piece that looks at the current state of U.S.-China relations in the context of these visits:

“The process of repairing [the U.S.-China relationship] appears to be off to a rocky start. A key objective of Secretary Gates was to get China’s military leadership to agree to a wide-ranging dialogue on strategic issues, including nuclear weapons, ballistic missile defenses, space weapons, and cyber warfare. His hosts rebuffed his initiative, agreeing only to a very limited dialogue on such second-tier issues as combating piracy and cooperating on international peacekeeping missions. Chinese officials indicated that Washington would need some policy changes – especially moderate its willingness to sell arms to Taiwan – before a dialogue on larger strategic issues could take place. The most the Defense Ministry would agree to do in the meantime was “study” Gates’ broader proposal.

“The lack of a meaningful military dialogue frustrates a persistent U.S. goal – to get Beijing to be more transparent regarding both the level of its military spending and the extent of its geopolitical ambitions – especially in East Asia and the Western Pacific. Recent reports of China’s possible breakthroughs in nuclear technology and stealth aircraft have intensified Washington’s concerns.”

The complex U.S.-China relationship has always had elements of both partnership and rivalry. The partnership component has tended to figure more prominently, especially in the economic arena where the benefits to both parties are substantial and widely appreciated. But the balance is now shifting toward the competitive end of the spectrum. There are many reasons for this, including the stress that arises whenever the dominant economic and military player in the international system encounters a rapidly rising great power. However, the current tensions between the United States and China also are the product of the sharply different political systems, histories, cultures, and agendas of the two countries.

The shift to a relationship in which rivalry may top cooperation poses serious challenges for leaders in both countries. Strategic and economic rivalry can easily escalate into viewing the competitor as an adversary, and even an outright enemy. Given the importance of the bilateral relationship, not only for the United States and China, but for the health of the international economic system and the future of global peace, it is imperative that both sides seek to manage and contain their disagreements. The Hu-Obama summit offers an opportunity to advance that process, and one hopes that the two leaders do not waste the opportunity.