Dialogue of the deaf - As China and America continue to talk past each other, Asia frets
IN EAST ASIA, relations between China and America make
the strategic weather. “When they are stable, the region is calm; when they are
roiled, the region is uneasy,” noted Bilahari Kausikan, a Singaporean diplomat,
in a recent lecture. In truth, ever since Richard Nixon went to China in 1972
and opened the modern era in Sino-American relations, the sky has rarely been
entirely clear; but nor has it often been clouded by so many disparate
disagreements as now. As the two countries’ bureaucrats from a range of
ministries gather in Beijing on June 5th for their eighth annual mass date, the
“Strategic and Economic Dialogue” (S&ED), rivalry is trumping co-operation.
The best that can be expected this
year is that the dialogue helps stem a slide into something more dangerous.
An implicit challenge by China to the American-led world order has become
explicit, as will be apparent at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual
high-level powwow on regional security to be held in Singapore from June 3rd to
5th. The venue China has chosen for this contest is the South China Sea, where
its territorial claims overlap with those of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines
and Vietnam (and are mirrored by those of Taiwan). That is where it has been
throwing its weight around most alarmingly.
China’s building over the past three
years of artificial islands on some much-disputed rocks and reefs has perturbed
the littoral states and exposed the hollowness of America’s naval predominance.
American might has not deterred the construction spree; and it is hard to see
how, short of full-blown war, the new islands will ever be either dismantled or
snatched from Chinese control. America and China accuse each other of
“militarising” the sea. Having insisted its island-building in the Spratly
archipelago was for purely civilian purposes, the Chinese defence ministry used
a row last month over its fighter-jets’ dangerous buzzing of an American
reconnaissance plane to argue for “the total correctness and utter necessity of
China’s construction of defensive facilities on the relevant islands”.
In fact, despite sending warships on
“freedom-of-navigation operations” near Chinese-claimed features, and having an
aircraft-carrier group on patrol in the sea, America seems to be trying very
hard not to provoke China too much. China is also anxious to avoid conflict.
The prime concern of the ruling Communist Party is to retain power. As a way of
losing it, fighting a war with America might be the most certain as well as the
most catastrophic. Yet, at a time of slowing economic growth, the party increasingly
relies on its appeal to Chinese nationalism. In this sense, as Mr Kausikan
noted elsewhere in his lectures, “the very insignificance of the territories in
dispute in the South China Sea may well be part of their attraction to
Beijing.” Nobody expects America to go to war over a Spratly.
What alarms America is that Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea seems
to fit a pattern. In a speech on May 27th Ash Carter, the defence secretary,
made a point belaboured by American leaders: that “On the seas, in cyberspace,
in the global economy and elsewhere, China has benefited from the principles
and systems that others have worked to establish and uphold, including us.”
What, Americans wonder, is China’s problem? No country has gained more from the
current order. Yet now, said Mr Carter, “China sometimes plays by its own
rules, undercutting those principles.” The result: a “Great Wall of
self-isolation”. Chinese analysts counter that America, too, plays by its own
rules. A foreign-ministry spokeswoman accused Mr Carter of being stuck in “the
cold-war era”, and implied his officials were typecasting China as a Hollywood
Indeed, as Mr Carter suggested, it is not just in its maritime adventurism
that China is at odds with America. Old differences widen, as new ones crop up.
It is hard for American leaders to ignore human-rights lobbyists, at a time
when China is conducting one of its harshest crackdowns on dissent in recent
years. Nor is American business brimming with enthusiasm for China. Rather, it
grumbles about cyber-espionage, the theft of intellectual property, the
stalling of negotiations on a bilateral investment treaty and a general
perception that the trajectory of economic policy in China is no longer towards
gradually increasing openness, but towards greater autarky and protectionism.
It does not help that massive Chinese overcapacity in industries such as steel
is generating trade disputes and fuelling anti-Chinese tirades in America’s
It used to be argued that, despite manifold areas of tension between China
and America, the relationship was so complex and multilayered there would
always be mitigating areas of mutual benefit. One of the reasons why relations
are so fraught now is that such bright spots are so few. Most hopeful are
shared commitments to move to cleaner energy and limit carbon emissions. Last
year’s S&ED saw a “breakthrough”, on curtailing the ivory trade to protect
elephants. The two countries are also co-operating for now in trying to curb
North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. But the suspicion lingers that China worries
more about the enforcement of sanctions that might topple the odious regime in
Pyongyang than about North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction.
A final reason for scepticism about the S&ED’s prospects is the
leadership politics of the two countries. It is a forum for bureaucrats. But
China’s have to some extent been sidelined under the presidency of Xi Jinping,
who has grabbed power for small party groups that he heads. So, in Beijing, the
Americans may be talking to the wrong people. And, on their own side, Barack
Obama’s presidency is ending. China may have taken his cautious foreign policy
into account in pushing its claims in the South China Sea. It doubtless
suspects that under either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, America is likely
to be less of a pushover.
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