Worried Dragon

This article appeared in the National Interest (Online) on June 6, 2008.
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During my recent visit to China, government officials and policy experts alike exhibited a volatile mixture of attitudes. Their views ranged from optimism on prospects for reduced tensions in the Taiwan Strait following the election of Ma Ying‐​jeou as Taiwan’s new leader, to anger over Western attitudes toward Tibet, to apprehension about Washington’s Iran and North Korea policies, to uneasiness concerning overall relations between the United States and China under a new U.S. administration.

The optimism regarding Taiwan is understandable. After dealing with a staunchly pro‐​independence Taiwanese government for the past eight years, having a leader in Taipei committed to preserving the status quo—instead of constantly seeking ways to assert Taiwanese sovereignty—is a great relief to Beijing. Chinese officials hail the start of direct air and sea links between the mainland and Taiwan, the resumption (after a decade‐​long interruption) of a cross‐​strait political dialogue and enhanced economic ties.

But PRC officials may be overly optimistic. From the standpoint of China’s ultimate objective—reunification—Ma is only a little better than his predecessor. His “three nos” statement during the election campaign—no unification, no independence and no use of force—underscores the limits of how far even moderate Taiwanese are willing to go to placate Beijing. Still, Taipei‐​Beijing tensions will likely be far lower during the next few years, and that development pleases Chinese leaders. It also postpones the danger of a confrontation between China and the United States over Taiwan. That has been more than a minor concern lately, given Taipei’s assertiveness on the issue of sovereignty and Washington’s implicit commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to protect the island’s security. That combination was a worrisome brew.

The relaxed optimism that I encountered concerning Taiwan was in marked contrast to the pervasive anger over Western attitudes on the Tibet issue. All of my Chinese contacts marched in intellectual lock step on that topic. They denounced American and Western media coverage as utterly biased and unfair, viewing demonstrations along the route of the Olympic torch as efforts by hooligans to embarrass China. Several scholars expressed the suspicion that both the demonstrations and the hostile media coverage were manifestations of a plot to destabilize China. President Bush’s meeting with the Dalai Lama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s pro‐​Tibet remarks came in for special resentment and criticism. There was no inclination to question any aspect of the PRC government’s policy toward Tibet. It was clear that the issue is an emotional one for members of the Chinese policy elite, and a matter on which U.S. leaders would be wise to tread carefully.

Disagreements about Tibet could foment tensions between Beijing and Washington, but so too could differences on how to deal with Iran and North Korea. Chinese policy makers have reason to be apprehensive about the direction of U.S. policy on those issues. Support in America for the Bush administration’s emphasis on diplomacy to get Pyongyang to abandon its quest for nuclear weapons is fading fast—especially within the president’s conservative base. John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, openly denounces the six‐​party talks as a failure. He urges the administration to intensify pressure on North Korea through tighter multilateral economic sanctions. Presumptive GOP nominee John McCain has moved in the same direction. President Bush needs no prodding to advocate more rigorous sanctions against Iran; he’s pushing for a new round of sanctions in his meetings with European leaders this week.

China is a major player when it comes to Iran and North Korea, and the Chinese worry that renewed pressure will soon be coming from Washington on both issues. They are certainly correct regarding Iran, and they may well be right about North Korea. Given the probability of a unified U.S.-EU position on tougher sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program, U.S. leaders will turn to Russia and China to seek additional agreement. But officials in both countries are manifestly reluctant to take that step. Like their Russian counterparts, Chinese policy experts believe that such sanctions will be no more effective than previous efforts, and will merely exacerbate the already‐​serious tensions with Tehran. Some of them also fear that the Bush administration views sanctions as merely a prelude to military action. Beijing wants no part of such an escalation.

Chinese officials would be even more opposed to a renewed policy of confrontation toward North Korea. They stress that China has already shown a willingness to pressure Pyongyang, as it did following the provocative North Korean missile tests and (probable) nuclear test in 2006. But they are equally adamant that North Korea remains an important friend and ally of China. There is a definite limit to how far Beijing will go in putting an economic squeeze on Kim Jong-il’s government. China’s nightmare is that too much pressure could cause his regime to collapse, leading to a massive refugee problem and undermining a significant part of Beijing’s geopolitical position in Northeast Asia.

These sharp policy differences on North Korea and Iran could easily lead to recriminations and damage U.S.-China relations. Washington would certainly not be pleased by what it would see as Beijing’s lack of cooperation on important U.S. security concerns. The Chinese are aware of the potential for trouble, but seem to have few ideas about how to avoid tensions with the United States.

The Chinese are also apprehensive about overall political trends in the United States. Members of the Chinese policy elite were shaken by a public‐​opinion survey published in March indicating that Americans regard China as the third‐​leading security threat facing their country. China ranked ahead of even North Korea among respondents. Astute Chinese observers also note that trade‐​protectionist sentiment seems to be growing across the political spectrum in America. That rise in anti‐​free‐​trade views leads to concerns that either an Obama or a McCain administration will be under increased pressure to “get tough” with China on the currency‐​valuation issue and other practices that many Americans believe constitute unfair trade practices. Some Chinese scholars also sense that criticism of China’s human‐​rights record is on the rise, especially within the Democratic Party.

Although government officials seem confident that the American business community’s support for the crucial economic ties between the two countries will be sufficient to thwart the most‐​blatant anti‐​China measures, there is some uneasiness about the overall relationship going forward. Some policy experts tended to dismiss the growing criticism of Beijing as merely election‐​year rhetoric. They mentioned Bill Clinton’s rather strident tone in the 1992 campaign, and noted that his policies once in office did not deviate markedly from those of his predecessors. Yet there was a grudging realization that this time it might be different.

The complex mixture of views in the PRC about key regional and international issues underscores the need for astute diplomacy by the next U.S. administration. There are several potential sources of trouble, and U.S.-China ties could suffer as a result. Given the importance of that relationship, the incoming president and his foreign‐​policy team should exercise great care in dealing with Beijing.