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Geopolitics: Facing up to China

February 5, 2010

Making room for a new superpower should not be confused with giving way to it
The Economist (UK)
February 4, 2010

FOR six decades now, Taiwan has been where the
simmering distrust between China and America most
risks boiling over. In 1986 Deng Xiaoping called
it the “one obstacle in Sino-US relations”. So
there was something almost ritualistic about the
Chinese government’s protestations this week that
it was shocked, shocked and angered by America’s
decision to sell Taiwan $6 billion-worth of
weaponry. Under the Taiwan Relations Act, passed
in 1979, all American administrations must help
arm Taiwan so that it can defend itself. And
China, which has never renounced what it says is
its right to “reunify” Taiwan by force, feels
just as bound to protest when arms deals go
through. After a squall briefly roils the waters,
relations revert to their usual choppy but unthreatening passage.

With luck, this will happen again. But the
squalls are increasing in number, and the world’s
most important bilateral relationship is getting
stormy. If it goes wrong, historians will no
doubt heap much of the blame on China’s
aggression; but they will also measure Barack
Obama on this issue, perhaps more than any other.

The China ascendancy

As if to highlight the underlying dangers, China
has this time gone further than the usual
blood-and-thunder warnings and suspension of
military contacts (see article). It has
threatened sanctions against American firms and
the withdrawal of co-operation on international
issues. Those threats, if carried out, would
damage China’s interests seriously, so its use of
them suggests that it hopes it can persuade Mr
Obama to buckle—if not on this sale then perhaps
on Taiwan’s mooted future purchases of advanced
jet-fighters. But the unusual ferocity of the
Chinese regime’s response also points to three dangerous undercurrents.

The first is the failure of China’s Taiwan
policy. Under the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou,
Taiwan’s relations with the mainland have been
better than ever before. Travel, trade and
tourist links have strengthened. A free-trade
agreement is under negotiation. Yet there is
little sign of progress towards China’s main goal
of “peaceful reunification”. Most Taiwanese want
both economic co-operation and de facto
independence. A similar failure haunts policy in
Tibet, where our correspondent, on a rarely
permitted trip to the region, found the attempt
to buy Tibetans’ loyalty through the fruits of
development apparently futile (see article). As
talks between China and the emissaries of the
Dalai Lama ended in the usual stalemate this
week, China warned Mr Obama against his planned
meeting with Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader.

Again, nothing new in that. There is, however, a
new self-confidence these days in China’s
familiar harangues about anything it deems
sovereign. That is the second trend: China, after
its successful passage through the financial
crisis of late 2008, is more assertive and less
tolerant of being thwarted—and not just over its
“internal affairs”. From its perceived position
of growing economic strength, China has been
throwing its weight around. It played a central
and largely unhelpful role at the climate-change
talks in Copenhagen; it looks as if it will wreck
a big-power consensus over Iran’s nuclear
programme; it has picked fights in territorial
disputes with India, Japan and Vietnam. At
gatherings of all sorts, Chinese officials now
want to have their say, and expect to be heeded.

This suggests a dangerous third trend. As China
has opened its economy since 1978, it has been
frantically engaged in catching up with the rich
West. That has led to the idea, even among many
Chinese, that it would gradually become more
"Western." The slump in the West, however, has
undermined that assumption. Many Chinese now feel
they have little to learn from the rich world. On
the contrary, a “Beijing consensus” has been
gaining ground, extolling the virtues of decisive
authoritarianism over shilly-shallying democratic
debate. In the margins of international
conferences such as the recent Davos forum, even
American officials mutter despairingly about
their own “dysfunctional” political system.

A swing not a seesaw

Two dangers arise from this loss of Western
self-confidence. One is of trying to placate
China. The delay in Mr Obama’s meeting with the
Dalai Lama in order to smooth his visit to China
in November gave too much ground, as well as
turning an issue of principle into a bargaining
chip. America needs to stand firmer. Beefing up
the deterrent capacity of Taiwan, which China
continues to threaten with hundreds of missiles,
is in the interests of peace. Mr Obama should
therefore proceed with the arms sales and
European governments should back him. If American
companies, such as Boeing, lose Chinese custom
for political reasons, European firms should not be allowed to supplant them.

On the other hand the West should not be panicked
into unnecessary confrontation. Rather than
ganging up on China in an effort to “contain” it,
the West would do better to get China to take up
its share of the burden of global governance. Too
often China wants the power due a global giant
while shrugging off the responsibilities, saying
that it is still a poor country. It must be
encouraged to play its part—for instance, on
climate change, on Iran and by allowing its
currency to appreciate. As the world’s largest
exporter, China’s own self-interest lies in a
harmonious world order and robust trading system.

It is in the economic field that perhaps the
biggest danger lies. Already the Obama
administration has shown itself too ready to
resort to trade sanctions against China. If China
now does the same using a political pretext,
while the cheapness of its currency keeps its
trade surplus large, it is easy to imagine a
clamour in Congress for retaliation met by a
further Chinese nationalist backlash. That is why
the administration and China’s government need to
work together to pre-empt trouble.

Some see confrontation as inevitable when a
rising power elbows its way to the top table. But
America and China are not just rivals for global
influence, they are also mutually dependent
economies with everything to gain from
co-operation. Nobody will prosper if disagreements become conflicts.
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