Time for Less Jaw-Jaw With China

Posted on August 14, 2012


Is the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (above) anything more than a photo-op?

Washington has caught itself in a “jaw-jaw” trap with Beijing. It has convinced itself that Sino-U.S. relations are threatened if it’s not in constant contact. Yet the truth is such dialogue raises unrealistic expectations. China’s tongue-lashing of a U.S. diplomat 10 days ago over the mildest criticism of its militarization of the South China Sea has yet again exposed the limits of diplomatic engagement. It is little use trying to keep talking when it is always a one-sided conversation.

While Churchill’s dictum that jaw-jaw is better than war-war is undoubtedly true, dialogue for its own sake is no assurance of building stable ties either. U.S. administrations, both Democratic and Republican, have spent decades talking with their Chinese counterparts. From presidential summits to the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue, and from sideline meetings at global gatherings to military visits, the two countries interact in a dozen different ways.

By now, it should be clear to both just how starkly different their values and world views are. Yet Washington continues to seek more opportunities to talk, as if just one more roundtable meeting will break through the logjam of problems besetting the relationship. The U.S. government is like the proverbial American tourist overseas, who believes that if he only speaks loudly and slowly to someone with no grasp of English, he’ll eventually be understood.

Beijing knows exactly what Washington is saying, and isn’t buying any of it. Consider the results of more than six years of the highest-level annual dialogues. In July, China vetoed U.N. sanctions against Syria’s Bashar Assad, while it regularly resists stronger sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program. Meanwhile, more than a decade of military-to-military ties has done nothing to dent China’s double-digit increase in its defense program or development of systems designed to attack the U.S. military.

Other engagement is similarly unsuccessful. China’s inclusion into the World Trade Organization has failed to better protect U.S. intellectual property rights. Nor has exposure to American values by hundreds of thousands of Chinese students made any change in China’s political system.

And still, those skeptical of pointless dialogue are labeled as unsophisticated ideological reactionaries who want to stoke greater tension with China to justify increased defense budgets, or some such nefarious purpose. The votaries of dialogue lecture that they’re being realistic in trying “give-and-take” with China. In their view, America must endlessly try to package its message right or make Beijing understand that becoming a responsible global actor is in its best interests.

Yet talking without purpose is not realism, it is idealism. Beijing understands that perfectly well, which is why it has made Sino-U.S. dialogue the ends, and not a means to better understanding. In its current form, the structure of U.S.-China diplomatic interaction is a bridge to nowhere because it allows Beijing to keep Washington focused solely on the next round of talks as opposed to actually trying to solve problems.

Worse, such talk may actually be damaging. Each annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue absorbs the energies of hundreds of officials, raises expectations and invariably results in no material progress. This leads to growing cynicism on the part of U.S. officials and increased skepticism from Congress.

Similarly, some longtime observers of military relations between the two sides note that the Chinese military hate their American counterparts, resent being forced into yet another round, and resist ever more strongly any attempts by American officers to have them reveal basic operating information, let alone deeper strategic-level intentions. Yet they do so on orders from Beijing, which wants to keep Washington happy. Nor have American bromides over human rights done anything but to make China resentful of U.S. interference.

The supporters of dialogue are right in saying the U.S. needs to have lines of communication with China. But that’s different from the cycle of “dialogue dependency” that currently afflicts the relationship, and has to be broken.

A better path is to talk only when there is something necessary and valuable to talk about. This means seriously questioning whether to continue with the Strategic and Economic Dialogue and most military meetings.

So let whoever is U.S. president in 2013 make a New Year’s resolution to cut out the meaningless jaw-jaw. When China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, takes over, he should know that any discussion he has with President Romney or Obama will be of the highest importance—and not a photo-op as was the case with Hu Jintao’s U.S. visit in early 2011. Or America’s chairman of the joint chiefs should only be sent to engage his Chinese counterpart when there is a clear signal that Beijing has a serious agenda for reducing military tension in the South China Sea.

Stability in Asia may well be achieved for a longer period of time if China understands that the United States will not be distracted by shiny baubles like an annual dialogue. Less frequent meetings will help Washington articulate its opposition clearly, and may even help recognize Beijing’s interests better. Most of all, this will stop America from using dialogue as a substitute for more serious action, and hence signal to China that its bad behavior won’t just result in another summit meeting.

Michael Auslin

Why I disagree with Hugh White on China’s rise

THERE is no more important policy challenge for Australia than the future relationship between the US and China.

Hugh White has raised serious questions about how to manage that relationship and, in particular, his view that the US should share power as an equal with China (discussed comprehensively in The Weekend Australian on August 11-12 ).

I disagree with much of his analysis and policy prescriptions for the following reasons.

First, he exaggerates the dangers in tensions between these two powers and, especially, the risks of conflict leading to nuclear war. He says competition between the US and China will inevitably lead to confrontation and military conflict. That did not happen in the more dangerous Cold War confrontation between the USSR and the US.

This was because it was clearly understood on both sides just how destructive a nuclear exchange would be. And yet, White

suggests a scenario in which a military incident in the South China Sea could lead to China dropping a nuclear weapon on American military bases in Guam, and the US doing nothing in retaliation.

In other words, the US, with more than 5000 strategic nuclear weapons, has backed down and accepted nuclear devastation on its territory with all the precedents that would set.

Second, there is little recognition of just how limited China’s military capabilities are. It is simply not good enough to accept the pumped-up claims of the US Naval War College that US aircraft carriers are vulnerable to ballistic missile strikes by China.

I’ve heard all these exaggerated views before out of the US. Of course, China is developing some serious modern capabilities but do we actually believe that the US will sit on its hands and do nothing? Unlike America, China has no experience of modern war and much of its military technology is either reverse engineered from Western designs or bought from Russia, which has made no technological breakthroughs for more than 20 years.

Ballistic missile attacks on US aircraft carriers from China’s mainland would simply invite devastating blows on targets inside China.

As for US power sharing and treating China as an equal, why should the US create what former prime minister Paul Keating calls “strategic space” for it? What is being implied here: giving China all the South China Sea or a sphere of influence in Southeast Asia or a free hand to threaten Japan?

The fact is that the correlation of forces in our region leaves China with no real friends other than Pakistan and North Korea.

Given China’s aggressive posture, practically every other major country in the region is moving closer to the US. When China’s foreign minister threatens members of ASEAN by stating that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries”, he is acting like a bully. Little wonder that China’s strategic space is limited.

Then there is the question of human rights and asserting, as do both Keating and White, some sort of moral equivalence between US values and those of China. Both seem to imply that because the Communist Party of China has taken hundreds of millions of people out of poverty this somehow cancels out its gross human rights abuses. Let’s just remember that China’s Communist Party was responsible in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution for more than 30 million deaths of its own people.

And, in recent memory, this was the party that rolled the tanks over students in Tiananmen Square. There is no way Washington will concede moral equivalence to a communist regime.

Finally, what about White’s proposal for a Concert of Asia in which China and the US would share power? As he acknowledges in passing, this would risk sacrificing the security of middle and small powers.

It must be remembered that in the Concert of Europe in the 19th century middle powers such as Poland either disappeared or were carved up. Just what is proposed here for countries such as Vietnam? Moreover, the Concert of Europe worked because there was a common European culture, which does not exist today in Asia.

The fact is that the situation between China and the US is nowhere near as perilous as suggested by Keating and White.

Nuclear deterrence and increasing economic interdependence will act as a brake on military adventurism by both sides.

Moreover, as Australia’s former ambassador to China, Geoff Raby, points out, China is utterly dependent on foreign markets and is in reality a highly constrained power.

Meanwhile, China will need to readjust to the fact that the US is refocusing on our region after been absent in the Middle East for the past decade. Beijing will no longer have the luxury of free kicks to unilaterally assert its power in the region.

The likely evolution is not some formal Concert of Asia but a mixture of good old-fashioned power balancing and prudent hedging on both sides.

Paul Dibb

Posted in: Politics