Saturday, September 25, 2010

Three Faces of the New China

In a blur of headlines over the past few days, Americans have been surprised with brief, seemingly contradictory glimpses of how China is wielding its newfound power.
POWER PLAY Japan was forced to rescind the arrest of a trawler captain.

There was China the neighborhood bully, cutting off Japan’s access to rare-earth minerals unless Tokyo folded in a minor, but longstanding, territorial dispute. (The Japanese folded.)

There was China the schmoozer, with its prime minister, Wen Jiabao, trying his hardest on Thursday to deflect President Obama’s pressure over the value of China’s currency — really a battle over whether jobs go to workers in Seattle or Shenzen. The two leaders talked for two hours at the United Nations. The outcome was left unclear.

And there was China the classic realist, opting for convenient inconsistency on sanctions against North Korea and Iran in efforts to balance its competing national interests. (The first is to engage the West on the Security Council. The others include securing oil and protecting a client-state from collapse.)

In one sense, there’s nothing surprising about a rising power finding subtle ways to handle complex problems. But before China’s breakout from poverty to arguably the world’s No. 2 economy, its default position on foreign policy was to restate the principle of non-interference in other nations’ affairs and focus largely on its neighborhood.

That was before it had the military resources and the incentive to start thinking of how to secure and defend interests around the globe. Today, its interests include access to oil in places like Sudan and Iran, safe shipping around the Horn of Africa, the ability to manipulate its currency for its own gain.

And for the first time, the world is seeing a distinct range of behaviors, from aggressive to passive-aggressive to diplomatic, in places that 20 years ago China’s leaders rarely thought about.

What American diplomats and analysts now have to figure out is what drives China’s actions and responses, how to try to shape them and, some would argue, what limits to try to set.

“The China that President Obama hoped he was getting a year ago, the one that becomes this great cooperative global power on the biggest issues of the day — that’s not the China he’s dealing with today,” said David Shambaugh, director of the China policy program at George Washington University.

A senior administration official who often deals with the Chinese leadership said: “As they begin to manage their many constituencies, their politics is looking more like ours.”

Here’s a scouting report so far on China’s style of muscle-flexing:


For decades countries around Asia have been wary of China’s resurgence — tracking how many ships and missiles it was acquiring, and how it was using its influence as an investor. A decade ago, as President Bush took power, a number of neoconservatives urged him to “contain” China’s presumed ambitions.

But containment would have probably been impossible and it proved, at least in the past decade, unnecessary. So far Beijing has not pressed new territorial claims; it has simply begun to defend old ones in sparsely inhabited places.

The Japanese stepped into one of those when they arrested the captain of a Chinese trawler near a group of islands in the East China Sea, called the Senkaku by the Japanese and the Diaoyu by China. The Japanese said the trawler rammed a Japanese coast guard vessel. A few years ago this might have been sorted out quietly as a consular issue. Not this time.

The Chinese — perhaps driven by the People’s Liberation Army, perhaps eager to begin to declare their equivalent of the Monroe Doctrine — demanded the captain’s return. Japan refused. Pushed by a nationalistic groundswell, China started blocking shipments of the rare earths, an act that threatened Japan’s electronics industry.

“This played to the Asia First crowd in China,” said Mr. Shambaugh, referring to a faction in China’s establishment that says the wise course is to dominate the region while avoiding tussles with great powers. In recent months there have been disputes over American exercises in nearby waters and over the border with India.

“We’ve begun pushing back,” said a senior administration official, explaining why the United States is sending an aircraft carrier to the area.

But the Japanese, after 20 years of recession, had no push left in them. The prosecutor dropped charges on Friday.


If China’s strategy with Asia is all sharp elbows, with the United States it is largely politeness and deflection — most of the time.

When Obama first encountered Hu Jintao, the country’s president, a fire was threatening to consume both their economies, and they pursued the common strategy of massive stimulus. For most of 2009, one of Obama’s top aides noted, “everything else was set aside.”

Then they narrowly skirted clashes on environmental policy at Copenhagen, and a cyber attack on Google was traced to China. But it is China’s foot-dragging on its promise to gradually let the market determine the value of its currency that has really strained relations. In Congress, rightly or wrongly, China is often accused of manipulating its currency to keep its factories humming, at the expense of American workers. Democrats and Republicans are calling for tariffs.

So far China’s strategy appears to be to maintain the trappings of routine diplomacy while dragging its feet. Prime Minister Wen used the word “cooperation” or “cooperative” six times in just a few minutes when standing beside Obama here. But when the doors closed, America pressed for immediate action, and, a witness said, Mr. Wen “dodged and weaved,” restating arguments that it takes generations to build an economic powerhouse.

Jeffrey Bader, the National Security Council’s Asia director, said the president noted he was “disappointed that there had not been much movement” since they last met. But his leverage was scant, which is why the White House threatened to to take other steps. Now the Chinese are gauging what he meant.


North Korea and Iran are where China’s local imperatives and great-power interests collide.

If America’s No. 1 goal is a stripping North Korea of its nuclear weapons, China’s is keeping North Korea stable. Should it collapse, the Chinese suspect, South Korea (and its American allies) will move in, perhaps up to China’s border. As one American intelligence official put it recently, “if the choice is between living with a half-crazed nuclear North or with us on top of them, the Chinese are choosing the first option.”

That doesn’t mean they are happy about it. James Church, pen name of the author of “The Man With the Baltic Stare,” his latest spy novel about North Korea, learned about the country as an intelligence officer. He said in an interview: “The Chinese may not like the North Koreans much. But there is too much geography, history and emotion tying them together and shaping Chinese thinking” for Beijing to jettison its long-time client, particularly if it means North Korea’s absorption by America’s ally, the South.

So in 2009, after the North’s second nuclear test, it suited China’s interests to join sanctions against Pyongyang. This year, when the United States again tried sanctions over the North’s presumed role in sinking a South Korean warship, the situation had changed: Kim Jong Il, the North’s dictator, was ill, and China needed to gain influence over his son and presumed heir, Kim Jong Un, to keep the lid on the North. So the Chinese watered down the sanctions effort here, and, foreign diplomats said, held a small victory party with the North Korean delegation.

Iran is another special case. Twelve percent of China’s oil comes from the country; while it has gone along with sanctions, it has also made sure that energy imports and exports were kept off the United Nations list. There is constant talk of new, long-term energy investments by the Chinese in Iran. But so far, few of those deals have been consummated. And when American officials point out that a confrontation with Iran over its nuclear ambitions would disrupt the flow of oil out of the Persian Gulf, the Chinese say they are certain it won’t come to that.

It is the ultimate three-dimensional chess board, played Chinese style. The Economist

No comments:

Post a Comment