US, China play risky power game

By Sushil Seth  / 

Thu, May 17, 2012 - Page 8

The recent visit to China by US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and US Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner was overshadowed by the furore caused by the escape of the blind Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠) to the US embassy in Beijing.

Chen has been a thorn in the government’s side, having embarrassed China by exposing cases of forced abortions and sterilization in China’s rural areas as part of the country’s one-child policy. After serving a four-year prison term on charges of “sedition,” he was put under house arrest from which he escaped recently. Not surprisingly, this caused a crisis of sorts in US-China relations, with Clinton and Geithner stuck right in the middle during their visit. All this only goes to show the fragility of US-China relations, with Beijing accusing the US of interfering in its internal affairs.

According to some recent reports, this conundrum might be resolved with the Chinese government agreeing to allow Chen, with his wife and two children, to study in the US.

This resolution might bring a convenient end to a difficult diplomatic crisis, but it will still be highly embarrassing for China as it effectively means Beijing is admitting that Chen’s earlier imprisonment on “sedition” was politically motivated.

Even though Beijing is averse to admitting it has a human rights problem, it does at times say that human rights are improving. This, by implication, means that there is a problem. The US obviously pushes this button to promote democracy in China.

However, with its economic success, China has increasingly taken a more assertive position, even promoting its path as an alternative model for the world. As the US and China increasingly take opposite positions on a whole raft of issues, their disagreements are likely to heighten with less scope to peacefully manage their relations.

If diplomacy is the art of managing relations between nations, the US and China will need to work harder. With both keen to assert their primacy in the Asia-Pacific region, the opportunity to manage rising ambitions is likely to get tougher.

China lays lays claim to most of the South China Sea, where it is contesting ownership rights over a series of islands with several countries while it also contests maritime boundaries with Japan over the East China Sea. There have been several naval skirmishes between Chinese forces and those of competing states.

Currently, relations between China and the Philippines are tense amid a dispute over the Scarborough Shoal, a chain of uninhabited islands in the South China Sea known as Huangyan Island (黃岩島) in Taiwan. Public opinion in the Philippines is quite animated over China’s blanket sovereignty claim to the archipelago, which is rich in oil, gas and fishery resources.

A report in the French newspaper Le Monde quoted a Chinese study which says that the area may contain the equivalent of 213 billion barrels of oil: equivalent to 80 percent of Saudi Arabia’s established reserves. No wonder there are a number of claimants to such potential wealth.

China is flexing its political and military muscles to try and browbeat the Philippines over ownership rights, but the Philippines is standing its ground. The Philippines is of course a US ally.

Although the US is ostensibly not taking sides, it has further strengthened its strategic ties with the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries in the region. Now that the US is disengaging from Afghanistan, it has signalled its intention to become more focused on the Asia-Pacific region — not something that has gone down well with China.

Apart from problematic relations neighboring states, China is also having more than its usual share of internal tensions; the most recent being the Chen Guangcheng affair.

China’s sensitivity over its domestic affairs was graphically illustrated during the Arab Spring when authorities blocked access to Internet information regarding the popular upsurge in north Africa, fearing the contagion may spread to China itself.

More recently, the sudden dismissal of Chongqing Chinese Communist Party boss Bo Xilai (薄熙來), who was removed from power at the same time his wife was arrested in connection with the murder of a British man, has shown that authorities are jittery.

It is such sensitivity and the resistance to any political reform which would compromise the party’s monopoly on power that give the US a certain moral and political advantage over China, but this only makes authorities within the country more resolute on maintaining and asserting party control. China’s leadership fears that the US is using democracy and human rights to foment internal trouble which could destabilize the nation. This remains as yet another problematic issue in the China-US relationship.

It is, however, the contest for primacy in the Asia-Pacific region, which remain the core issue.

Up until now, the US has been the dominant force in the hemisphere and militarily, the US is still the most powerful country on the planet. In the Asia-Pacific region, though, China is seeking to displace the US through a mix of economic, political and military muscle.

Indeed, China believes it is none of the US’ business to be poking around in its neighborhood where, in Beijing’s view, China’s historical and strategic primacy, is well established. Indeed, from this viewpoint, China’s loss of regional primacy over the past 150 years was a temporary glitch.

Therefore, a renewed and stronger China feels justified in laying claim its old domain: the Middle Kingdom, which helps explain its many sovereignty claims over both the South China and East China seas.

However, in a world full of competing nation states, historical claims of dominance by old or new empires are more an obstacle than a solution. This brings China into conflict with some of its regional neighbors and with the US as well, given that it is the dominant power in the region — in addition to being an ally of many of China’s Asian neighbors.

One way out of this complex situation may be to work out a power-sharing mechanism that bypasses countries in the region, but this also poses problems because none would want to be a pawn in US-China relations.

Whatever happens, neither China nor the US are likely to engage in any serious power-sharing deal. At some point either China or the US will have to make way for the other.

As the rising power China is unlikely to give ground on any of its “core” strategic interests while the US, on the other hand, wants China to be a responsible stakeholder, meaning that Beijing shouldn’t rock the boat.

These are irreconcilable positions and, ultimately, spell trouble for the region.

Sushil Seth is a commentator based in Australia.