Saturday, June 12, 2010

China-US Military Ties (FAIL)ing

John Pomfret, one of the best Beijing correspondents, had a great piece in the Washington Post the other day on the strain between the US and China "caused" by China's imperialism and expansionism US weapons sales to Taiwan. Pomfret narrates:
On May 24 in a vast meeting room inside the grounds of the state guesthouse at Diaoyutai in Beijing, Rear Adm. Guan Youfei of the People's Liberation Army rose to speak.

Known among U.S. officials as a senior "barbarian handler," which means that his job is to deal with foreigners, not lead troops, Guan faced about 65 American officials, part of the biggest delegation the U.S. government has ever sent to China.

Everything, Guan said, that is going right in U.S. relations with China is because of China. Everything, he continued, that is going wrong is the fault of the United States. Guan accused the United States of being a "hegemon" and of plotting to encircle China with strategic alliances. The official saved the bulk of his bile for U.S. arms sales to China's nemesis, Taiwan -- Guan said these prove that the United States views China as an enemy.

U.S. officials have since depicted Guan's three-minute jeremiad as an anomaly. A senior U.S. official traveling on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's plane back to the United States dismissed it, saying it was "out of step" with the rest of the two-day Strategic and Economic Dialogue. And last week in Singapore, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates sought to portray not just Guan, but the whole of the People's Liberation Army, as an outlier intent on blocking better ties with Washington while the rest of China's government moves ahead.

But interviews in China with a wide range of experts, Chinese officials and military officers indicate that Guan's rant -- for all its discomfiting bluster -- actually represents the mainstream views of the Chinese Communist Party, and that perhaps the real outliers might be those in China's government who want to side with the United States.
As one of the sources later in the article commented, the Army follows the Party. Guan is not isolated in his thinking, but rather, mainstream. A neat equation is manifest here: victimization + expansion + nationalism + paranoia = war. That's where we're headed. It should be obvious that the path the US is heading down is delusional, though I suspect also that much of the "delusion" is due to the fact that so many policy-shapers are doing business with China. What we should be doing is pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and refocusing on building our Asian trade, military, and diplomatic relationships, and pumping money into rebuilding the US infrastructure and industrial base. But Bush and Obama have us doing what's really important: spending hundreds of billions to make Central Asia safe for Chinese expansionism.

Hilariously, it is now 2010, we're on our second Administration attempting to work with Beijing on North Korea, Iran, and other issues, and yet observers are still writing phrases like U.S. officials have also expressed the hope that China would work harder to press Iran. You could change the date to 2005 and still be writing exactly the same line. For example, here's a WaPo piece from 2004....
"We are engaged in a continuous dialogue with China about what I think is a commitment at the top levels of the Chinese government to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction," Bolton said at a news conference here after the first of two days of talks with Chinese officials.
2004! And the continuing dialogue....continues. Result? China is still happily shipping nuke parts to Iran, a cheap and profitable way to rivet US attention on a region of the world that is less important than Asia. And the US is still pushing China to come on board. When will US officialdom wake up?

Trivia question: which nation is the largest source of foreign investment in Iran? (answer and here too.)

Bonus Question: what year was this written:
US State Department Spokesman Nicholas Burns ("STATE DEPARTMENT NOON BRIEFING) responded to a question.... "I don't have a particular comment to make on that," Burns said, although he added that "we've had a variety of discussions with the Chinese on that particular issue." Burns said that Assistant Secretary Lynn Davis, on her recent trip to the PRC, had "good discussions" that "focused on proliferation concerns." "We believe that China has made important commitments to the United States concerning missile non-proliferation. In the coming year, we would like to build on the commitments that China has made, and that is why we'll continue to raise the specific concerns we have and look for ways to resolve these issues through negotiations and discussions," Burns said. "Secretary Christopher, I'm sure, will be raising some of these issues when he sees Vice Premier Qian Qichen during his trip to Beijing."
The answer is 1996. Plus ca change....

Longtime Taiwan stalwart, John Tkacik, writing in the Washington Times, has additional information on the Pomfret piece:
The problem, according to officials close to the program, is that the United States sees the exchanges as a way to develop friendly relations, while China's military has used the exchanges for intelligence-gathering and technology identification for its major military buildup.

"The Pentagon is totally naive about this relationship," said a defense official involved in the program.

An annual Pentagon report to Congress on military exchanges with China's People's Liberation Army reveals that the Chinese military has been granted access to U.S. military expertise despite a legal prohibition on exchanges that could bolster Beijing's power projection capabilities.

The exchanges also provided Chinese military visitors with a look at key strategic communications, logistics and supply capabilities, management methods and tactical combat operations, as well as nuclear policy and strategy, according to a review of the programs.
It's just a classic case of the Chinese willingness to use the American desire for a "relationship" as leverage to make concrete gains. While they derive concrete benefits, we have a "relationship." Lucky us.

It should also be noted that the recent weapons sales were proposed a decade ago. The media never mentions that China is peeved about weapons that have taken nearly ten years ago arrive, delayed for years by the KMT in the Taiwan legislature, by the Bush Administration, and by the bureaucracy in both countries. Omissions like this make the Chinese reaction seem more "reasonable" than it actually is. Reality? The Chinese complaints about weapons sales to Taiwan are pure theatre designed to separate the US from Taiwan -- an excellent example, as Pomfret clearly describes, of China's long-term plan is to sever that relationship.

The reaction to the decade-old weapons sales also shows how China consistently moves to transfer the tensions it creates with Taiwan to the US-Taiwan relationship. Chinese "anger" is a policy it uses to manage its relationship with the US. People who write that "tensions have eased" between China and Taiwan are simply missing how they've been transferred to the China-US and the US-Taiwan relationships. Tension with China is never eased; because China uses tension to manage its relations with other nations.

One other point to make. Pomfret writes:
More broadly, many Chinese security experts and officials view the Obama administration's policy of encouraging Chinese participation in solving the world's problems -- including climate change, the global financial crisis and the security challenges in Iran and North Korea -- not as attempts to elevate China into the ranks of global leadership but rather as a scheme to enmesh it in a paralyzing web of commitments.
It can't be said enough: as this paragraph makes clear, China doesn't want in. It doesn't want to play in the world system that Washington organizes, and it is simply going to ignore it except where it can derive benefits. US policymakers who continue to push this mad dream that China can be brought into a global system run by the US are delusional. Period.

UPDATE: Gordon Chang makes the same point in a good piece in the Jamestown Brief.
Yet Beijing has moved in the opposite direction in the last two years. American “engagement” policy, however, has remained unchanged. Washington officials talk to their Chinese counterparts almost every day, conducting dozens of bilateral forums each and every year. The two nations, however, are moving further apart on the issues that count. And as disputes between them arise and worsen, Washington will have to consider the possibility that no amount of dialogue, however structured, will convince Chinese leaders to calculate their interests in the way we think they should.
MEDIA: A point to make with the Pomfret article. The narrative framework uses the usual unthinking formulaic phrases to add drama. These are invariably Beijing-centric: China's nemesis, Taiwan: Taiwan is not China's nemesis. Nothing Taiwan does threatens China. The threats all run from Beijing toward Taipei. Time to stop writing like this, folks.
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Don said...

If Gates and his brilliant officials really didn't realize that Rear Adm Guan's outburst was pre-programmed and his simmering rage against the US was shared by all on his side of the table including the non-PLA "good guys", then they need to re-take Negotiating in China 101.

"Delusional" is a great word for summing up the Washington perspective on China, and it always has been. Remember Mr and Mrs Generalissimo Cash-my-Check?

Sage said...

Michael - one can never forget that the military establishment is where the power is centered in China. The president and premier are only talking heads, soon to be replaced like props.

Yes, there are those who will split hairs over rhetoric and/or seek to soften the historically hawkish stand that naturally comes from the mouths of chest beating, macho military types but they are silenced quite easily. (the rolling heads after Tienanmen as example)

The mistake the U.S. makes when sending diplomats to Beijing is thinking they are making progress. They return home with positive reports but that strange empty feeling.

Now with a new sense of national pride and power, we are beginning to see the real face of the Chinese and we are witnessing the emergence of that face in a broader context. A shrewd "while the cat is away" policy.

Dealing with the U.S. is a piece of cake for Beijing. Every four to 8 years a new and naive U.S. administration takes over ... while in Beijing, the military rules consistently. Minor adjustments to personalities may be required by Beijing but a crash course in failed Chinese "diplomacy" is practiced by Washington.

New open hand policies, a call for "friendship and cooperation", blah, blah, blah are accepted by Beijing with smiles and bows and a general consensus that foreigners are weak and stupid.

Beijing and any government that is controlled by it's military establishment only respect power. It's the only thing they know.

Sage said...

An insightful book for those interested;

"The Great Wall" (Six Presidents And China) by Patrick Tyler

nick said...

"China doesn't want in. It doesn't want to play in the world system that Washington organizes"

Why should it? China is hardly the only country that wants to be allowed to develop independently. Latin America, which has been an integral part of the US dominated system until recently, is now breaking away, for example, with considerable gains for democracy and self-determination -- e.g. in Bolivia.

I think friends of Taiwan need to be aware of how unusual Taiwan's situation is. Most countries would be much better off if US hegemony wanes. Taiwan, given that it is claimed by the emerging _regional_ hegemon, might not. But the continuing drift of power in East Asia away from the US and towards China looks highly probable, and Taiwan needs a survival strategy that takes that into account.

Michael Turton said...

Nick, I agree with you. But US policy doesn't seem to recognize that. People in the US talk about China's "great power responsibilities" and the like. They are delusional.

I suspect most countries are not going to be better off if US hegemony wanes. That too is a delusion, because the next hegemon is China and it is going to be even worse than the US.

@sage, thanks for your thoughtful comments.

Anonymous said...

On the topic of the benefits of waning of U.S. hegemony--

Take Europe as an example. The same relationship might exist for other parts of the world, but I am most familiar with Europe, having lived there for many years.

For a couple of generations of already, being "politically enlightened" has for most Europeans been associated with identifying the U.S. as the source of most of the world's problems. Am I wrong? No doubt, U.S. foreign policy has created a fair number of problems in many parts of the world, but when in the mood to be concerned about democracy and human rights, etc., European attention has been focused almost exclusively on the U.S. (and by extension on Israel and other 'client states'). One telling example among many is how many articles and documentaries you see there about capital punishment in the U.S. A serious problem, no doubt, but you would be hard pressed to find evidence of a cooresponding concern in Europe for the much higher rate of executions in China. How many generations until people learn to broaden their scope of concern? And what do you think are the obstacles?

Is this a kind of cultural bias? I think it is, because for Europeans, the U.S. is always the cultural 'other' against which they constantly evaluate their own development, morality, etc. China exists completely outside that dualistic worldview, and so is not perceived as any kind of cultural 'threat'. This is also the reason why Europeans are not particularly interested in learning more about China, or in comparing themselves with China in terms of human rights, foreign policy.

Regarding the U.S., the cooresponding problem is that they are generally uninterested in comparing themselves with anybody, unfortunately.

But, regarding Taiwan, it is still categorized as a U.S. 'client-state' by many in Europe, and that attitude just makes it that much harder for people there to feel sympathetic, or to gain a broader understanding of the real issues at stake for Taiwan, in terms of sovereignty and democracy.


Anonymous said...

It can't be said enough: as this paragraph makes clear, China doesn't want in. It doesn't want to play in the world system that Washington organizes, and it is simply going to ignore it except where it can derive benefits.

In addition to what you wrote above, I also believe the PRC doesn't want "in" on the BIS system of credit and finance in the long run. They want to control the cash register, not the jewish bankers in Switzerland.

Great write-up Michael, Thanks.

Robert R. said...

They want to control the cash register, not the jewish bankers in Switzerland.

The Chinese are anti-semites?