Dialogue or Disaster

WASHINGTON, DC – China’s President Hu Jintao will start a four-day visit to the United States on January 18. Although Hu has been on several “working visits” to Washington, his upcoming trip will be his first official “state visit” since becoming president eight years ago.

WASHINGTON, DC – China’s President Hu Jintao will start a four-day visit to the United States on January 18.

Although Hu has been on several “working visits” to Washington, his upcoming trip will be his first official “state visit” since becoming president eight years ago. Given the great importance that China has traditionally attached to formalities, the Chinese government is repeatedly emphasizing that fact – and thus demonstrating its high expectations for the event.

China has made an enormous effort to manage every detail of the summit. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was sent to Washington last week to apply the final touches to the preparations. China also resumed high-level bilateral military exchanges, which it suspended a year ago to protest US arms sales to Taiwan. Robert Gates, the US
Secretary of Defense, was warmly welcomed by Hu and other Chinese leaders days before the Washington summit. He even toured the People’s Liberation Army’s missile corps. Obviously, China wants to cultivate a pleasant atmosphere for Hu’s state visit.

Most of the meeting’s agenda will be the same as at previous Sino-US summits. President Barack Obama will likely raise issues such as the bilateral trade imbalance, the Chinese government’s manipulation of the renminbi’s exchange rate, prevention of nuclear proliferation, recent tension on the Korean peninsula, international cooperation on climate change, and China’s poor human rights record.

Hu’s reactions to Obama will also be familiar. China will blame the trade imbalance on America’s ban on high-tech exports to China, deny engaging in currency manipulation, call on the US and its allies in East Asia to negotiate with North Korea without preconditions, insist on China’s entitlement as a developing country to an exemption from emissions caps on CO2, and refute criticism of its human rights record.

While neither side is likely to change its current position significantly, a new subject will probably arise at the meeting: China’s growing military power, and its influence on the Asian and Pacific region.

Just as China has replaced Japan as the world’s second largest economy, so its military might has grown rapidly in recent years. As a result, the US, as the world’s strongest military power, wants to put bilateral military relations on the upcoming meeting’s agenda, along with bilateral economic relations and international political affairs.

Gates raised this issue during his recent talks with his Chinese counterpart, Liang Guanglie, proposing a mechanism for “strategic dialogue” between US and Chinese military forces, aimed at avoiding potential conflicts that might be caused by mutual misunderstanding and mistrust. But Liang did not commit to such a formal arrangement. Obama will surely raise the issue again at the upcoming summit.

But China’s attitude towards Sino-US military dialogue remains uncertain. Despite its resistance to a strategic military dialogue with the US, it seems to crave America’s attention to its growing military might. A few days before Gates’s visit, official Chinese media published a photo of the J-20 Black Eagle, a fifth generation stealth, twin-engine fighter aircraft made in China. The media also reported the development of the Dong Feng 21D ballistic missile, described as an “aircraft carrier killer.”

From America’s point of view, China’s rapidly growing military power and lack of transparency have become grave concerns. In recent years, China has become increasingly assertive in its territorial disputes with Japan and other countries around the South China Sea. Indeed, Chinese leaders claim the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea as “core” national interests and openly express displeasure at the presence of US naval forces in these waters.

China’s behavior clearly shows its determination to become a regional power – indeed, the only military power in the region. Given the strength and depth of America’s alliances within the Asia-Pacific region, tension between US and Chinese military forces has risen.

China believes that it has a legitimate right to increase its military power, given its need to protect its expanding economic interests, which include secure sea routes for the transport of energy and other goods. The suspicions of China’s neighbors, and their moves to establish closer military relations with the US, have made the Chinese government increasingly anxious and frustrated. At the same time, growing nationalist sentiment has put huge pressure on the government to be more aggressive and confrontational.

Putting strategic military dialogue on the US-Sino agenda benefits both sides. For China, it is a symbol of recognition and respect as a regional military power. And, on a practical level, frequent and regular high-level military exchanges between the US and China would greatly increase mutual confidence and trust at a time when their divergent interests might otherwise lead to conflict.

History shows that a rising military power will inevitably clash with an existing military power if they do not have regular, effective dialogue. In that case, China’s claim to a peaceful rise would ring hollow. China, the Asia-Pacific region, and the world would suffer greatly as a result.

Zhang Wei, a former Chairman of the Committee of Foreign Trade and Economic Relations of the Tianjing Municipal Government, and former lecturer in the Chinese Economy at Cambridge University, is currently a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.


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