Whither China-US Relations


1. Storm Warnings
2. Chinese_Democracy

1. Storm Warnings

As the old seafarers' saying goes, "red sky at morning, sailors take warning". The sky over China-US relations is a deepening red these days. In contrast to recent presidents, who all got off to rocky starts with China, the Obama administration had a relatively calm first year. But it belied structural issues that are revealing themselves now.

It was not without its difficulties of course. Hillary Clinton laid seeds of discord by signalling early on that human rights would not be allowed to get in the way of other issues. That gave the Chinese license to dismiss the issue entirely. The US was seen to have lost control of Obama's visit to China, and he was effectively muzzled in a way that rankled the American side. Obama was similarly snubbed and blind-sided by the Chinese at Copenhagen, in a way that ruffled feathers within the US administration. All of this reflected both a recognition of China's increasing power and influence in the world, and the resulting development of some swagger and arrogance on the part of the Chinese.

That shift in the power differential complicates longstanding issues and some new ones. The sale of arms to Taiwan has, as usual, caused a rift. The pending meeting between Obama and the Dalai Lama will further roil the waters. These are old issues with new contours. The attack on Google, however, and the American assertion that Internet security and privacy will be a new priority, poses a new problem that has the potential to be a lightening rod for a tension - it could serve as a real focus for anti-Chinese animus in the US, while it strikes at the ever sensitive issue of sovereignty within China. Similarly, the ongoing and lingering resentment over China's perceived currency manipulation, in the midst of an ongoing recession and increasing protectionist pressures, could lead to escalating conflict. The American need for Chinese cooperation on increasing pressure on Iran over nuclear proliferation issues, only complicates the picture further.

Much of this can be reduced to a problem regarding the asymmetrical nature of their reciprocal needs. America's needs from China are all affirmative in nature, in that they all require Chinese action - support for sanctions against Iran, reducing Internet censorship, ceasing Internet hacking activity, lifting constraints on currency market valuation, agreeing to carbon emission caps and verification regimes, and so forth. China's needs of the US are all negative and passive - they require the US to simply refrain from raising human rights issues, not sell arms to Taiwan, not speak to the Dalai Lama, not complain about currency issues, not complain interfere in Chinese carbon emissions issues, etc. The Chinese don't need anything from the US but its indifference.

This structural problem does not bode well for the near term in US-China relations. The issues are each complicated, and compounded by their interconnectedness. There is no easy way through. It is time to take warning, but there are no safe harbours in sight. But it may be time to start battening down the hatches. - Gamma

2. Chinese Democracy

While Gamma identifies a series of tensions that exist between China and the United States, I see symptoms of a root problem: the failure of the democratic revolution within China. If China were a democracy, these would be acceptable international tensions that would resolve themselves through negotiation and compromise. But China is a military dictatorship with incredible power. In this context these issues are fraught with more sinister consequences. American policy should focus on the issue at the core and not be distracted by issues on the periphery. And Gamma is right - the issue is complicated.

An obsessive fear of democracy drives the domestic and international policy of the Chinese government. The current state of affairs is balanced precariously on a tightrope. Holding it up on one end is a legacy of brutality and totalitarian terror that crushes internal dissent before it takes root. Holding it up at the other end is the promise of economic gain, both for China's citizens and for foreign corporations who want access to the domestic market as more and more of these consumers are created.

If China can hold the tightrope in place it will, soon enough, develop enough domestic wealth and acquire enough foreign assets to become virtually self-sufficient and thereby unstoppable. If they succeed, their tyranny could exert a malign influence across the planet for generations. This may sound a little stark but consider what, if any, positive contributions to the international rule of law or community of nations that China has made in the last 25 years. The list is short indeed. In contrast, their actions in respect of Tibet and Taiwan and their enabling of the repression in neighboring countries like North Korea, Myanmar and Vietnam demonstrate the nature of the influence that we can expect to see exported further afield if China is allowed to develop into a virtually invincible juggernaut of economic and military might.

To prevent this the United States and her allies should hit hard at China's vulnerabilities and work hard to foment domestic democratic change. There are three areas on which they should apply pressure in order to achieve this.

First, the United States and the E.U. should combine forces to link human rights to free trade and participation in the global economic community. In addition to the moral argument, there is a practical connection between rights and trade. The suppression of individual rights create unfair economic advantages that make a mockery of the principle of comparative advantage that has been used to chip away at global protectionism. Chinese exports should me met with a punitive tariff. Chinese companies should face restrictions in obtaining equity in American and European firms. And Chinese citizens should also face restrictions in the amount of equity they can hold in private and public companies. There would be short-term economic pain as Chinese credit and capital became less available but the global markets would reset themselves. They always do.

Second, the United States should work to frustrate and embarrass China at every turn on its flouting of international law, its bellicose sabre-rattling in Taiwan, and its propping up of the loathsome regimes on its borders. China has been coddled and nuzzled and stroked for too long, meeting every perceived slight with over-reaction and over blown rhetoric. This is an effective strategy, a false front that prevents real engagement. The United States should push harder and harder though this front. It is time to call and to draw China out.

Third, the United States should aggressively foment and support democratic movements within China. This should be done through advocacy, through covert financial support and through the liberal granting of American citizenship to dissidents.

The risks of this course of action are intense and multifold. It would have a dramatic effect and create a clash of interests that would shape the world for the foreseeable future. It could backfire. China could prove too powerful or too clever.

It is also impractical, of course. It is a big idea and they seem to have fallen out of favour in American foreign policy. Parochial issues in American politics would present a virtually insurmountable barrier. And holding Europe and the United States together in common interest for long could prove impossible.

But what is the alternative? It can't be the indifference that, as Gamma points out, only fuels China's ambitions. When were are old and look back on the great game between the United States and China, is it likely that we will rejoice in the fact that China was forced to make minor concessions on its currency and that the honour of Google was adequately defended, or is it more likely we will wish that the United States had confronted China directly before it was too late? - Beta



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