Rivals Under the Same Heaven

By Jian Junbo, Asia Times Online, 12/1/11

LONDON – US policy toward China in past three decades could be summarized as seeking a balance between containment and engagement.

The diplomatic offensives launched by the administration of US President Barack Obama in past weeks are evidence that Washington is quickly tipping the balance in favor of containing China, frustrated by its failure to engage that country into US-led international order. 

At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Hawaii in mid-November, Obama demanded that China play by international rules, and be more responsible in the international community, since it had grown up. He said China should continue to revalue its currency against the US dollar, narrow the Sino-US trade deficit and better protect intellectual-property rights. Even more aggressively, Obama has kicked off negotiations on forming a Trans-Pacific Partnership, a US-led free-trade zone in the Asia-Pacific area that would exclude China – the second-largest economy in the world.

Right after the APEC Summit, Obama visited Australia, a political and military ally of the US, where he declared that 2,500 American troops would be stationed in Darwin, capital of Australia’s Northern Territory. This is widely viewed as a new deterrence to China’s navy.

Then at the East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia, the US raised the South China Sea issue despite Beijing’s objection. It is China’s consistent position that territorial disputes in that sea must be dealt with through bilateral negotiations between the countries concerned, and no other countries or international organizations should get involved.

For Beijing, therefore, Washington’s eagerness to get involved is not only an offense but also an act of strong support for some countries with territorial disputes with China, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, to hit a nerve in Beijing and complicate the situation in the region further.

Taking into consideration all of this and other actions by the US administration in East Asia in recent years after Obama proclaimed the ”return to Asia” strategic shift, it’s easy to see that a new containment policy toward China is in formation, although Obama and his top officials have publicly denied it.

Not long ago, Obama approved selling advanced weapons including F-16C/D jet fighters to Taiwan, an island considered by Beijing as a renegade province of China. Furthermore, under suspected US pressure, Naypyidaw stopped a planned hydroelectric dam project in cooperation with China in Myitsone, Myanmar, with the excuse of people’s fears that the dam might damage the environment. The construction of this dam offended Myanmar’s people, said President Thein Sein. However, this was not convincing for Beijing, because assessments on environmental effects had been carefully done before construction began. The suspension of the dam project is therefore widely considered as a gift of Naypyidaw to Washington in exchange for the US lifting sanctions on Myanmar. Washington is never happy to see close relations between China and Myanmar. It may not be a coincidence that after the dam project was shelved, Hillary Rodham Clinton paid a visit to Naypyidaw. This was the first visit by a US secretary of state to Myanmar in half a century.

Moreover, Clinton on July 20, during a visit to Chennai, ”kindly” suggested that India should play a more active role to ”lead Asia”, which has also been commonly considered as Washington’s hope for India to be a power to balance China’s rise.

All this is not to mention that the US has many military bases in countries and regions neighboring China – South Korea, Japan, Guam, the Philippines, Thailand, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan – and it has military cooperation with Mongolia, Indonesia, Malaysia and others.

All in all, it seems Washington is now seeking comprehensively to contain China with both hard and soft approaches after its adoption of the ”return to Asia” strategy and its failure to frame China in the US-led international system despite the efforts of each US administration in the past three decades. When Obama visited China in 2009, he tried to sell the new idea of a Group of Two – a US-China convergence in geopolitical interests – but Premier Wen Jiabao straightforwardly told Obama that Beijing didn’t like such an idea.

Originally, Obama hoped in this way to ”tame” China – not by containment or engagement alone but with what some called a ”tender trap”. But he failed. After that, we can see Washington has been readjusting its policy toward China, and the readjustment should not be considered only as temporary ”election rhetoric” by Obama to please the Republicans and common voters. Rather, this is a systemic and strategic readjustment of China policy, in coordination with Washington’s ”return to Asia” strategic shift.

By now, it seems Washington has nearly shown all of its cards about comprehensively containing China.

Militarily, it has striven to enhance its alliance with Japan and South Korea, consolidate its military bases in China’s neighbors, and strengthen cooperation with countries that have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea or elsewhere.

Politically, it has tried to incite some of China’s neighbors to challenge Beijing or sow discord, has sold weapons to Taiwan, and actively intervened in China’s domestic affairs in regard to such issues as Tibet, Xinjiang and human rights.

Economically, it has increased its pressure on China to revalue the renminbi and set up obstructions for China’s exports to and investment in the US.

Faced with Washington’s increasingly aggressive moves to contain China, Beijing has so far remained restrained and patient. In October when Washington declared new arms sales to Taiwan, Beijing reacted mildly. In the face of Obama’s recent offensives, Beijing has also refrained from any strong reaction, which astonished some China watchers in the West.

For instance, at APEC, President Hu Jintao just asked Obama to respect China’s legitimate core interest in the Asia-Pacific region, since China respected America’s legitimate interests in this region, adding that China welcomed the US to play a constructive role there. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin, responding to a media question about the US stationing troops in Australia, just diplomatically said that the move ”may not be quite appropriate”.

Meanwhile, when being challenged by the Philippines and Vietnam with the suspected support and encouragement, directly or indirectly, by the US, Chinese leaders have also shown patience or even tolerance, without making any tit-for-tat moves.

Beijing’s restraint and patience are partially due to domestic affairs, especially because the Chinese Communist Party is set to hold its 18th National Congress next year to reshuffle its top leadership. Preparing for the congress is the priority of priorities for the CCP. At such a crucial moment, Beijing doesn’t want the power transition to be affected by external factors and affairs. Keeping a low profile and mild position toward external offenses is helpful in maintaining internal political stability. Anyway, a stable and peaceful power transition, which will have far-reaching influence on China’s future, is more important than a temporary victory in an international arena.

Furthermore, China’s self-restrained response to the United States’ systemic containment is in line with Beijing’s implementation of the national strategy – China’s rise is peaceful regardless of some unfriendly and even hostile criticisms in the West. To rise peacefully and to strive for a harmonious world of course do not mean China must yield to the US and other Western countries, or just prove it’s able to avoid the kinds of wars that inevitably happened in history during the rise of new powers such as Spain, Britain, Germany and the US.

This stems from China’s traditional philosophy and its historic relations with foreign powers. As a semi-colonized country between the 1840s and 1940s, China understands that no country likes foreign interference and military threats, let alone invasion. In view of this, peaceful rise demonstrates not only the Chinese people’s serious commitment to the world, but also their great respect for their ancestors who lived through that tragic period.

In addition, China does not have a culture or history of colonialism. True, in Chinese dynastic history, there were wars. But most of them were among the Han Chinese themselves or between the Han and ethnic minorities. At certain times, the Chinese imperial courts sent troops to invade lands in today’s Vietnam and Korean Peninsula, which then were regarded as subordinate states in a China-centered international system. The Mongol Empire’s invasion of Europe and Asia was an exception, but the Mongols at that time thought themselves superior to the Chinese and refused to accept Chinese culture.

Anyway, the Great Wall was built to keep away invaders from the northern deserts and grasslands, and Zheng He’s great fleet was not to colonize the barbarians’ lands and despoil their wealth.

In Chinese culture, the idea ”All under Heaven” is different the Western idea – the “world”. The former considers all under heaven as a whole and integrated, and each part can co-exist with others. The ”world” means the division of ”us” and ”them”. Within ”us”, ”we” are integrated and a whole, yet outside ”us”, ”they” are heresies, enemies who should even be killed if ”they” don’t accept “our” cultures and vales.

According to this view, China believes its rise can really be peaceful and benefit others, yet the US, as the sole superpower, and the rest of the West believe that China, with a different culture and political and societal system and unwillingness to accept Western values and systems, should be contained and ”taken down”, as former US ambassador to China Jon Huntsman said in a TV interview.

Thus when China declined to be integrated into the US-led international system and Western values, Obama began to lose patience, especially when China seemed to continue rising while the US was deeply trapped in its financial and economic crisis.

But Sino-US co-existence is not possible if Washington continually pursues an offensive containment policy toward China while Beijing has to remain restrained and patient and keep a low profile.

How to manage China’s rise is a big challenge to Washington as well as Beijing. It is important that the US should not treat China like those rising powers in history, and Beijing should seek more flexible and functional ways to deal with Washington’s challenges.

Clearly, China and the US need to cooperate with each other in international affairs, not only at the bilateral level, but also at regional and global levels. To dismiss China’s commitment to peaceful rise as a joke is not a clever or mature attitude. So when the US administration rushed to contain China after failing to achieve its goal of taking it into its sphere, Obama and his colleagues in Washington only appeared childish and disrespectful. The best way is to sit down and understand the differences between the two civilizations, and then find their common points. Containment is the worst and stupidest way to deal with or manage China’s rise.

Dr Jian Junbo, an assistant professor of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai, China, is currently an academic visitor at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the United Kingdom.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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