Thu, Jun 07, 2018 - Page 9 News List

A North Korean opportunity for US and China

By Richard Haass

It is not obvious, but North Korea could be the best thing for the relationship between the US and China since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Whether or not that potential is realized, it is not difficult to understand why it exists.

The contemporary Sino-US relationship was born nearly a half-century ago on a foundation of shared concern about the threat posed to both countries by the Soviet Union. It was a textbook case of the old adage: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Such a relationship could survive just about anything — except the disappearance of the common enemy. This is of course precisely what happened with the end of the Cold War in 1989 and the demise of the USSR at the beginning of 1992.

However, the US-China relationship showed surprising resilience, finding a new rationale: economic interdependence. Americans were happy to buy vast quantities of relatively inexpensive Chinese manufactured goods, demand for which provided jobs for the tens of millions of Chinese who moved from poor agricultural areas to new or rapidly expanding cities.

For its part, the US was mesmerized by the potential for exporting to the vast Chinese market, which was hungry for the more advanced products it wanted, but could not yet produce.

Many in the US also believed that trade would give China an increased stake in preserving the existing international order, increasing the odds that its rise as a major power would be peaceful.

The related hope was that political reform would follow economic growth. Calculations such as these led to the US decision to support China’s entry into the WTO in 2001.

Now, years later, the economic ties that had become the foundation of the Sino-US relationship have increasingly become a source of friction that threatens it. China exports far more to the US than it imports, contributing to the disappearance of millions of US jobs, and has not opened up its market as expected or delivered on promised reforms.

Moreover, the Chinese government continues to subsidize state-owned enterprises, and either steals intellectual property or requires its transfer to Chinese partners as a condition of foreign firms’ access to its market.

This critique of China is widely embraced by US Republicans and Democrats alike, even if they disagree with many of the remedies proposed by the administration of US President Donald Trump.

The criticism is not limited to economic affairs. There is growing concern in the US about China’s increasing assertiveness beyond its borders. The Belt and Road Initiative appears to be less a development program than a geo-economic tool to expand Chinese influence.

China’s broad claims to the South China Sea and its creation of military bases there are viewed as a provocation in the region.

China’s domestic political development has also disappointed observers. The abolition of the presidential term limit and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) concentration of power have come as an unwelcome surprise to many.

There are also concerns about the suppression of dissent — often cloaked in the guise of Xi’s anti-corruption drive — the clampdown on civil society, and the repression of western China’s Uighur and Tibetan minorities.

The net result is that it is now commonplace for official US government documents to pair China with Russia and to speak of it as a strategic rival.

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