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Has China encountered the security dilemma?

February 10, 2010

Daniel W. Drezner
Foreign Policy
February 8, 2010

Over at the German Marshall Fund's blog, Andrew
Small articulates an interesting thought on the
recent spot of trouble between China and the west:

The mood on China in Western capitals is
beginning to darken. From cyber-attacks to
obstinacy in Copenhagen, Beijing’s assertiveness
and the hardening tone of its diplomacy are
prompting a rethink. If the competitive aspects
of the relationship with China are going to
dominate in the years ahead, have the United
States and Europe got their strategies right? And
if not, what are the options?....

Many Western officials believe, however, that
China has miscalculated -- and is shooting itself
in the foot.  Talk of giving Beijing more space
on sensitive issues has evaporated.  Support from
business lobbies has weakened.  Heads of
government who would happily push China into the
“important but not urgent” file have begun to review their strategies.

Already, Beijing is feeling the effects of this
pushback.  Recent weeks have seen the
announcement of arms sales to Taiwan,
confirmation of a U.S. presidential meeting with
the Dalai Lama, and public criticism from
President Obama and Secretary Clinton of China’s
currency policies and its stance on the Iranian
nuclear issue.  The West hopes China will realize
it has overplayed its hand and will make some
conciliatory moves — such as a modest revaluation
of the yuan and acquiescence to tougher sanctions
on Iran — to reverse the political dynamic. For
all the noise in the last week, Washington has
made only a modest tactical shift. But the United
States and Europe may yet see this as a wake-up
call and make a more serious set of changes to their China policies.

Indeed, for all the wailing about how America
can't commit to certain policies for fear of
angering the Chinese, the United States seems to
be doing whatever it wants.  Hmm.... that sounds familiar.

As I keep saying in this space, China is a rising
power, but they're still not in the same league
as either the United States or the European Union
in terms of material wealth, military
infrastructure, or soft power.  Joshua
Kurlantzick  provided a concise summary of this
point in yesterday's Boston Globe which is worth reading.

The question I have is whether any of this will
matter.  My hunch is that China's various actions
play well domestically -- and that has top
priority for Beijing's leaders.  China is not a
superpower, but it is still powerful enough to
"go it alone" if it so chooses on a number of policy dimensions.

Question to readers:  will the U.S. and China
continue to pursue the status quo, or will
they  respond to each other's actions by dialing the conflict down?
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