Friday, January 14, 2011

Diplomatic breakthroughs not likely on Hu's forthcoming visit

If you are expecting diplomatic breakthroughs in the US China bilateral relations associated with China’s President Hu Jintao’s state visit next week, you are likely in for a disappointment.

Up to now both sides are talking past each other and not to each other. It has been a classic case of cultural mismatch and miscommunications--a case of American frontal declarations versus China’s nuanced ambiguous parries. Each side talks but no one appears to be listening to the other.

Officials of Obama’s Administration have been urging China to be transparent and to be more revealing of their intentions. At the same time they have offered China no incentive to go along.

China has been saying you Americans have stealth planes and aircraft carriers and China does not have them yet. America has a nuclear arsenal many times larger. America’s military technology is years ahead and China’s only strategy is to hide behind a cloud of ambiguity. Keeping America guessing is more important to China than to ensure that America can sleep well at night.

Recently, it has been revealed that China will commission its first carrier this summer and has been testing missiles capable of hitting a moving target thousands of miles away, in other words a “carrier killer.” The US DOD is naturally upset. Up to now, the waters of the Pacific up to China’s shore have been American navy’s own backyard, uncontested by any other power.

In advance of Secretary Robert Gates visit to China, Pentagon presented a laundry list of topics he wished to discuss. When he got to Beijing, China welcomed him with the first test flight of their version of the stealth fighter. When he asked about the timing, President Hu assured him that it was purely coincidental. Sure it was, just like years ago when a Chinese submarine came up to surface within hailing distance of Kitty Hawk, the American carrier patrolling the Pacific.

Before Gates left Washington for Beijing he had said that he hope to convince China to abandon development of advanced weapon systems that would threaten American superiority and furthermore he did not expect the Chinese stealth plane to be operational before 2020. Maybe China begs to differ?

On the one hand, Gates would like to begin high level dialogue between the military counterparts of both sides. On the other, Gates did nothing to assure China that the US holds no hostile intentions towards China—especially not after he then stopped in Japan and urged Japan to place orders for America’s advance fighters in order to keep pace with China’s stealth fighters, ones that he thought wouldn’t be operational for another decade.

In Beijing, Gates wanted to talk about nuclear non-proliferation, missile defense, cyber security, space cooperation, united position on North Korea and Iran, to name a few. His host and counterpart, General Liang’s reply was simply no more arms sales to Taiwan.

What General Liang meant was that China considers Taiwan as part of China and American sales of arms to Taiwan is in violation of China’s sovereignty. If the US is willing to recognize China’s strategic interest and not hide behind Taiwan Relations Act, a unilateral act of America’s making, and then everything else can be on the table.

Shortly after Secretary Gates returned, Treasury Secretary Geithner listed economic and commercial issues that need to be resolved when President Hu come visiting. In exchange for concessions from China, Geithner offered a curious incentive, namely the ability for China to buy more high technology products from the US. Basically Geithner was saying, “Give us what we want and we’ll let you buy more from us.” It’s not clear whether Geithner was talking for the benefit of the Chinese advance team or to cater to expectations of the home audience.

The greatest disconnect seems to be the US insistence of being the only remaining super power with all the privileges pertaining thereof, namely play by American rules. China is saying while we have no desire to be a competing power, we want to be treated with respect and as a peer.

The American doctrine of trust us, we have nothing but good intentions may play well elsewhere but not with China. China does not see American actions consistent with stated intentions, only veiled threats if China does not comply.

I was in Beijing last month as part of a delegation from The Committee of 100, meeting with leaders of Beijing. At the briefing held with American officials at the new US Embassy, I asked if we have an official or unofficial policy of containment of China. The startled official burst out laughing and said, “Absolutely not.”

Later in the afternoon, we went to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and I had the opportunity to pop the same question, namely does China believe the US is trying to contain China. Our host, a Vice Minister, replied, “No, we don’t believe so and even if the US wanted to, we don’t think it could be done.”

At least America’s frontline diplomats working in China see and understand that we are dealing with a China with a new attitude and confidence. It behooves Washington to adjust as well.

China will have its blue water navy and space warfare capability because China can afford to develop them. By having counter punching capability, China may actually be more willing to examine America’s stated altruistic intentions.

If America continues on business as usual basis, it will use China’s every advance in military technology as provocation and justification for increased defense spending. For every dollar China spends on military, America will have to spend 5 to 10 to maintain its overwhelming edge. America will be using the Reagan strategy deployed effectively against the former Soviet Union on itself. America will end up with a national budget for defense and nothing else, which is what led to the implosion of USSR.

Or, Washington can begin to face reality and see our own limitations. America’s already mighty military does not have to get mightier. China is not buying America’s idea of strategic ambiguity consisting of conflicting messages. China’s stated desire is to be a partner with the US and America needs to figure out what concessions—and not just feel good declarations--to give to make friends with China.

Washington needs to convert the mindset of regarding China as a rival into a potential ally. This is not going to happen by the time of Hu’s visit.

Also posted on New America Media.

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