The China Challenge

Expert View

Good relations with China are necessary and achievable.  Since President Richard Nixon’s historic meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong in 1972, the U.S. – China relationship has developed into a dynamic and challenging strategic relationship that should not be taken for granted.

The bilateral relationship was established primarily because both the U.S. and China were concerned about Soviet expansionism.  China witnessed this during the 1960s, concerned that the Soviet Union would use nuclear weapons against a defiant China.  The U.S. was concerned with Soviet inroads in Latin America and threats to our NATO allies.  This convergence of interests, to counter the Soviet Union, brought President Nixon to Beijing to meet with Chairman Mao.  Eventually, in 1979, normal diplomatic relations were established.

Deng Xiaoping, after being purged twice and surviving the Gang of Four, took over the leadership of the country in 1978 and quickly moved China closer to the U.S.  His priorities were clear:  Improving a sick economy and countering the Soviets.  Deng did both.  He discarded Marxism and introduced capitalism to an economically sick China.  He encouraged U.S. investment and exhorted Chinese students to get an education in the U.S., so as to help jump start the economy. At the same time, Deng worked with President Jimmy Carter to ensure that both countries shared information on the Soviet Union and cooperated in defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan.  Eventually the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan and after their withdrawal in 1987, President Mikhail Gorbachev visited Beijing in June 1989, in an effort to solicit a loan from China.

Cooperating against the Soviet Union was in the interest of both China and the U.S., as was a close economic relationship. Thus bilateral relations thrived when it was mutually beneficial.

The 1989 Tiananmen Square incident was a clear statement from Chairman Deng that civil disobedience would not be tolerated.  The crack down on the students and others at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989 was reaffirmation from the leadership that the Communist Party would not tolerate civil unrest; that the Party was in charge and controlled the gun.  While Marxism was dead, Leninism and Party control would retain power.  U.S. condemnation of Beijing for its handling of this incident put a chill in the bilateral relationship.

The 1990’s, with Chairman Jiang Zemin in charge, was a period of economic cooperation, with Prime Minister Ju Rongji working hard to enhance U.S.- China economic cooperation.  The U.S. worked equally hard to get China into the World Trade Organization and to grant China Most Favored Nation economic status.  Politically, however, the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis was a clear message from the U.S. to China that the U.S., in line with the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, would come to the defense of Taiwan if China attempted to use military force to invade or intimidate Taiwan.  The introduction of two aircraft carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Strait in 1996 was a stark message to China that the U.S. would not abandon Taiwan.  It also impressed upon the Chinese leadership that China’s military was no match for the U.S.

The beginning of the 21st century witnessed U.S. – China collaboration on issues dealing with international terrorism, proliferation, piracy on the seas, and North Korea.  China took the lead in hosting Six Party nuclear negotiations with North Korea, starting in August 2003.  It was during this period that the Strategic Dialogue with China was established, headed by the Deputy Secretary of State and China’s Deputy Foreign Minister.  These geopolitical issues were of interest to China and the U.S., thus cooperation was good.  It was also during this period that China started to put more emphasis on building its military capabilities.

Currently, the U.S. – China economic relationship is extensive, with significant bilateral trade and U.S. investment in China and Chinese investment in the U.S.  There also is considerable bilateral tension with issues dealing with the South and East China seas.  China’s declaration of the nine dash line and its claimed sovereignty over this expansive area has resulted in international condemnation and a U.S. commitment to ensure that these sea lanes remain open.  Friction over reported Chinese cyber intrusions into U.S. public and private entities recently resulted in a bilateral Cyber Agreement, signed by Presidents Obama and Xi, that neither country will use cyber to steal the intellectual property and trade secrets of the other country.

The Xi Jinping administration in Beijing is ensuring that the Communist Party not only controls the gun, but remains dominate in all aspects of China’s peaceful rise.  That means growing the middle class and ensuring continued economic progress are key leadership priorities.  It also means that the security services will continue to play a dominant role in all aspects of Chinese society, to ensure stability.  The lessons of the 100 years of humiliation, from the Opium War of 1841 to liberation in 1949, followed by internal upheaval with the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, continue to resonate.   When China was weak, militarily and from within, foreign entities exploited a vulnerable China.  The late Ming period, when corruption and decadence made imperial China vulnerable to subjugation by the warrior Manchus and the imposition of the Qing Dynasty in 1647, is contemporary history for which all Chinese students are familiar.  Thus Nationalism speaks to the pride with which many Chinese view China’s economic rise and its assertive military.

President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has wide popularity in China.  More than 150 senior government officials and over 1,000 less senior officials have been tried and convicted.  The appointment of Wang Qishan, a senior official well known to the U.S. and a trusted confidant of Xi, to head this campaign was testament to Xi’s commitment to make this a successful campaign.    This campaign and  Xi’s assertive policies in the South China Sea resonate with the people,

In 2009, China asserted that islands in the South and East China seas were their undisputed historical territories.   Additionally, China has been consistent in stating that Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang are China’s non-negotiable core interests.  Hopefully, the islands in the South and East China seas are not core interests and thus are negotiable.  China’s unwillingness to negotiate will exacerbate tension in the region and with the U.S.

China will continue to modernize its military, with a smaller and more agile force capable of projecting power in space and on the high seas.  Economic development in China has stalled.  There’s pressure on the government to do more to ensure that the economy continues to grow, with more jobs and more people entering the middle class.  And if income disparity is not better addressed, China could witness an exponential increase in public demonstrations.

The domestic economic and political issues confronting the Xi Jinping Government are significant.  Hopefully, China will not divert this domestic tension with aggressive military moves in the South and East China seas.

Equally important is the need for China to better understand core U.S. interests, similar to our understanding of their core interests. There should be no ambiguity as to the U.S. commitment to our allies in East Asia and that the U.S. is a Pacific power that will not accept China’s nine dash line and its territorial claims.  That the U.S. will not tolerate cyber economic espionage against private U.S. companies, in China or the U.S.   

Although dealing with China is a challenge, it’s also an opportunity.  An opportunity for the U.S. and China to collaborate, as we did in the 1980s, on issues of mutual concern, while working quietly and diligently to resolve differences.  We should start with North Korea, where both countries agree that North Korea should not be a nuclear weapons state.  International terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, international organized crime, narcotics trafficking, cyber-crime, and fraud are a few of the many issues requiring greater attention and, hopefully, closer and more productive bilateral cooperation.  

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