March 12, 2009

March 12, 2009 | Commentary on Asia, China, Taiwan

Staring Down Chinese Diplomacy

Asia's corridors of power are full of pragmatists. But unlike in Washington, where realism has now come to include new post-sovereignty goals, realism in Asia is still about sovereignty -- protecting it and extending it.

The Chinese, in particular, draw straight lines to their interests. They understand abstractions like becoming a "responsible stakeholder" well enough but they do not value them. American encouragement in this regard amounts to our "ask." We put our chits on increasing Chinese responsibility in the international community, and on climate change; they put theirs on sovereignty over Taiwan and the South China Sea. To some well-meaning Americans, international law is a way to peacefully settle conflict. To Chinese diplomats, it's a tool to assert their pre-existing aggressive claims.

The U.S. must be engaged with China. China is too big to ignore. ... But let's keep our eyes open. At this point in history, and for the foreseeable future, China's vision is too narrow to leverage the value of "responsible stakeholderhood."

The most recent case in point is the dust-up over the weekend in the South China Sea. According to press reports, on March 8, five Chinese ships harassed the USNS Impeccable in international waters 75 miles off the coast of China's Hainan Island, at one point forcing it to take emergency measures to evade a collision. The defense Department said the incident was only the latest of several "increasingly aggressive" events over the past week.

What gives? Only weeks ago, the Obama administration was heralding resumption of defense talks as the start of a new era in U.S.-China military relations. The problem is that military contacts are an American priority, not a Chinese one. Since cancelling them in October -over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan-the Chinese have been cool to requests to resume.

Their reserve held all the way through the visit of the American delegation visit to Beijing in February. The official American response to the talks bordered on effusive. By contrast, the head of the Chinese delegation began by declaring, "China-U.S. military relations remain in a difficult period. We expect the U.S. side to take concrete measures for the resumption and development of our military ties." So much for mutual interest and shared responsibility.

Contact with the Chinese military is a good thing. It can build appreciation for each side's capabilities and reduce the prospects of miscalculation and conflict. U.S. military contact with China is closely constrained by American law to ensure that encounters do not result in inappropriate exposure to U.S. military doctrine, technology and techniques. In the end, though, the Chinese value their territorial claims far more than they value contact with the U.S. military. They certainly aren't going to allow the prospects of improved military relations, especially given its rights restraints, to prevent them from asserting their sovereignty.

The Chinese claim that the Impeccable was in their waters. They have focused their response on what they claim is their 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). This claim is problematic for several reasons. But however it's sliced, the U.S. Navy has a right to be where it was off the coast of Hainan. Besides, it's important to know that the Chinese claim goes well beyond any 200-mile EEZ fig leaf. The Chinese hold the same jealous regard for the whole South China Sea, an area covering 648,000 square miles of ocean, to include territory that other nations would more reasonably consider their own.

The administration responded to the Impeccable incident with strong statements about U.S. rights in international waters. But they would do well to also internalize the lesson here: The Chinese are not going to be lured away from their sovereign claims in the South China Sea or anywhere else by indirection or abstraction. Their claims must be challenged, not only by quietly carrying out naval operations in international waters, but explicitly. Observers in the region are well aware of Chinese claims, on Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the Senkakus. Short of the occasional forced public challenge -- such as the one that just occurred near Hainan -- silence can be perceived as consent. And the appearance of American acceptance leaves the more vulnerable of China's neighbors with seemingly no options but to acquiesce.

The U.S. must be engaged with China. China is too big to ignore. Plus, there are several areas, whether in economics or nuclear proliferation, where we do share interests and can work together. But let's keep our eyes open. At this point in history, and for the foreseeable future, China's vision is too narrow to leverage the value of "responsible stakeholderhood."

The leaders running the People's Republic of China today are, indeed, pragmatists. But they are not post-sovereign, or even enlightened realists. They are calculating geo-politicians extremely jealous of their sovereignty. The United States can deal with that, but only if it is taken head on. Pretending the Chinese are something they are not will not make it so.

Walter Lohman is senior research fellow for Southeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Walter Lohman Director, Asian Studies Center
Asian Studies Center

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