Snowden a hiccup in US-China ties

By Sushil Seth  / 

Thu, Aug 01, 2013 - Page 8

When US whistle-blower Edward Snowden was allowed by Hong Kong authorities to fly to Moscow, where he is seeking temporary asylum, it put a damper on US-China relations.

Having revoked Snowden’s passport and made a formal request to Hong Kong for his extradition on spying charges, the US was hopeful that it would have its man back home to face the music and where he was likely to be locked up for the rest of his life. Hong Kong apparently followed Beijing’s directions to get rid of him to avoid entanglement in an unseemly and long diplomatic and legal battle with the US. The territory’s authorities argued that they could not detain him, as the paper work from the US was deficient. That is the benign explanation. The US did not buy this, contending that Beijing’s handling of the Snowden affair would damage US-China relations.

The management of US-China relations has been tricky with the rise of China. Beijing has long harbored the suspicion that the US is trying to contain it and has said as much now and then. The US is increasingly aware that China is emerging as the other superpower.

The recent summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and US President Barack Obama in the informal surroundings of California retreat was, in a sense, an acknowledgement of it. China and the US are engaged in a competing and contending relationship, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. This requires deft handling to avoid a nasty conflict.

China would like to regard the Asia-Pacific region as its own backyard, like the US has done by using the Monroe Doctrine to warn off other powers from its backyard in western hemisphere. The US, with its Pacific coastline in California, Hawaii and its Pacific territories, considers itself as much a Pacific country as China does. Besides, it has a string of military alliances with countries in the area and extensive trade and strategic interests.

Even as China has been seeking to establish its regional pre-eminence in the past decade or so, the US decided to checkmate it by Obama’s announcement in 2011, during a visit to Australia, of a “pivot” to Asia. This makes the Asia-Pacific region the primary focus of US power, with much of its naval deployment concentrated there. This announcement obviously rattled China.

In the past few years, Beijing has been engaged in a series of disputes with some of its neighbors over maritime boundaries in the South China Sea and East China Sea. China strongly believes in the authenticity of its historical claims. At the same time, it is seeking to test the limits of the US’ commitment to the region and its allies. Undoubtedly, there is an element of brinkmanship, which, if not handled carefully, might lead to confrontation.

Xi seems aware of this danger and during their recent summit, the two presidents sought to concentrate on how best to manage their difficult relationship. Even as regional territorial disputes between China and its neighbors have become a matter of serious concern, another issue cropped up to cause friction between the US and China. This was Washington’s deep concern about cyberattacks from China, which some people have said emanate from within the People’s Liberation Army. The US alleges that these attacks on US companies have cost them billions of dollars in intellectual property theft. They also introduce a dangerous element of cyberwarfare between the two countries.

The summit sought to deal with managing US-China relations over regional maritime disputes and cyberespionage. The two nations reportedly declared their determination to keep these issues, as the New York Times reported, “from descending into a Cold War mentality and to avoid the pitfalls of a rising power [China] confronting an established one.”

This is the real problem. Recent history, in terms of the two world wars, is not reassuring on managing relations between an emerging superpower and an established one, especially when the emerging power (China) believes that the US is trying to limit its “legitimate” sphere of influence.

Just after the US-China summit came the Snowden spy saga, which revealed that the US was also hacking into Chinese systems. This has seriously embarrassed the US and compromised accusations that China is hacking US economic and defense secrets. Not surprisingly, a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson — obviously with some glee — said: “I would like to advise these people [US officials] to hold up a mirror, reflect and take care of their own situation first.”

By not getting entangled in the Snowden affair, China has acted smartly. Of course, it did displease the US and might further complicate US-China relations.

There was one positive outcome of the summit that pleased the US, and that concerned North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. According to US media, US and Chinese officials appear to be finally on the same page on how to contain a nuclear North Korea. This includes using China’s economic leverage and keeping North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on the outside until he falls in line.

It is clear that Pyongyang is already feeling the heat from China. A recent visit to China by a high-level North Korean emissary did not get much traction. Apparently, he was told that Pyongyang should lower the temperature and resume nuclear talks. The North has also been making overtures to South Korea and the US. The recent visit to China by South Korean President Park Geun-hye and high-level talks with top Chinese leaders was another signal to Pyongyang of Beijing’s displeasure. China and South Korea both agree on the denuclearization of North Korea.

This is a positive development as far as this issue goes, but if regional disputes flare up, with the US committed to its regional allies, China might not push North Korea too far into the abyss because it remains a useful strategic buffer against Washington.

In a nutshell, the recent US-China summit was a useful development, athough it was later marred by the Snowden affair. However, Joseph Nye, a Harvard University political scientist and an old hand on US-China affairs, was way off the mark when he reportedly described the summit as “the most important meeting between an American president and a Chinese leader in 40 years since [former US president Richard] Nixon and Mao [Zedong (毛澤東)].”

Sushil Seth is a commentator in Australia.