Sunday, February 7, 2010

REGIONAL PERSPECTIVE Living and coping with the rising power of China

CHINA IS NO LONGER the China we used to know - a huge developing country with the world's largest population that the developing West could push around. At this juncture, China resolutely wants to get rid of its overbearing stereotyped image - docile and weak - which has permeated its record for thousands of years. Like it or not, the global community needs to understand China's worldview and its use of power with the so-called Chinese character, or suffer the consequences of ignorance at its own peril.

Consequently, the Obama Administration's decision to sell US$6.4 billion worth of arms and missiles to Taiwan has rubbed China's growing confidence and power the wrong way at the worst possible time.

China's initial reactions were highly calculating and severe.

In weeks and months to come, Beijing might have to bite the bullet and pay a high toll for the planned retaliatory measures.

President Barack Obama has been engaging China with a softer approach for a little over a year. The US administration has long declared it does not view China as a threat but rather as a strategy partner on the global stage, in promoting peace and security around the world.

Somehow, this template has begun to crumble with China rebutting strongly the arms' sale with possible sanctions on US companies and repercussions for their regional and international cooperation.

If Beijing decides to pick on US companies supplying Taiwan's defence arsenal, then it would be the first time in the annals of the East that an Asian country has imposed sanctions against the world's greatest power. Companies and subcontractors including Boeing (McDonnell-Douglas) or Sikorsky Aircraft Company, to name but a few, could be targeted in the near future. Of course, billions of dollars and thousands of jobs could be on the line.

Obviously, China wants to send a strong signal to the US that the usual tit-for-tat, as in the past, would no longer be tolerated.

It must be noted that throughout the past year, both sides built up extremely high expectations for their mutual goodwill and extraordinary developments on the diplomatic front. Unfortunately, it has not developed.


Last year Obama was heavily criticised for not meeting with the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama in October, even though every US administration in the past two decades has done that,following his first visit in 1979. Furthermore, US State Secretary Hillary Clinton's refusal to attack China openly on human rights policy has drawn wrath and upset human rights activists and civil society organisations.

In Beijing's latest view, Obama is actually much weaker on the diplomatic front than was originally perceived. Lower popularity rating and embattling healthcare and the Republican victory in the Senate have also shifted Obama's focus away from diplomacy to domestic concerns.

While China would remain the centre of Asian policy due to the middle kingdom's growing political and economic clout, Washington's attitude towards Beijing will certainly be toughened from now on.

As such, it would be in China's interest to draw the line on two key vexing issues of Tibet and Taiwan, which Beijing has accorded top priority. After all, respect and popularity of the Dalai Lama in the Western world has been viewed by Beijing as a conspiracy to cover-up the promotion of Tibet's independence, even though the spiritual leader reiterated that has not been his objective.

The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 obligated the US to supply weapons to the island for defensive purposeas. Beijing had hoped that the arms sales would gradually reduce to reflect the US and China's new confidence and commitment.

China does not want the US meddling with its own internal problems, especially at a time when Beijing's top communist leaders are looking for their own exit strategies on these issues.

The latest visit of the Dalai Lama's special envoy to Beijing - despite the lack of substantial progress - and improved all around relationships with Taiwan under President Ma Ying-jeou, were cases in point.

China knows breaking the vicious cycle of US-China's long standing tit-for-tat over the Dalai Lama and Taiwan will be difficult. After all, both the US and China must be ready to pay a high toll for whatever the consequence of their responses cum retaliation.

With its strong economic progress - even amid the global financial crunch, and future potential growth - China, with its economic clout fast superseding Japan's, wants more respect from the international community, especially the US and the Western world.

It is not wrong to say China is a big guy in a hurry.


The ongoing US-China tension, if it persists, would place a dark cloud over their future cooperation both in a regional and a global context. The effort to pressure Iran and North Korea over nuclear non-proliferation issues immediately comes to mind. Cooperation on climate change and the global financial crisis would be affected.

Regional leaders fear that in months to come, the tension could impact efforts to create a new architecture in East Asia, in which China is playing a leading role. The Obama Administration has been positive towards such regional building. Beijing is more willing than ever to have the US join the East Asia Summit in the near future.

US-China relations are too important for global peace and prosperity to allow them to drift further. A new modus operandi must be found that overcomes the stigma of Tibet and Taiwan.

Both countries need to reassess the reality of their relationship, taking into account both internal and external exigencies and what they could do and achieve together, since their leaders know full well the dire consequences of their being at loggerheads. By Kavi Chongkittavorn for The Nation, Bangkok

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