As George Bush once said, the relationship between US and China is complicated. In many ways, I think China is one of the few policy areas that Bush got almost everything right. He started presidency with much anti-China rhetoric, but left the office as one of the most pro-China president in US history. It is my personal view that having a positive, engaging and pragmatic relationship with China is the most beneficial path that any US administration can take. Some people in the China-blue group (like Bill Gertz, John Bolton and Donald Rumsfeld) favoured antagonizing China through more support with Taiwan, labeling China as a threat/competitor and creating an encirclement of China through alliance with Australia, Japan and India. Bush started off in that corner, but he slowly moved to great engagement with China while maintaining strong relationships with regional allies like Australia and Japan. I think he basically did a really good of adapting to the rise of China, the increased role of China as America’s creditor and the interconnected economic relationship between the two countries. He started started the strategic dialog with China, which I think really helped the bilateral relationship. I think he was absolutely right in going to the Beijing Olympics when the pressure was on him not to. By the end of his presidency, he had built a really good working relationship with China and a good understanding of the country. He was able to work with China on critical political and economical issues, even though the two sides had vastly different views. I think China really appreciated that.
The Obama administration was definitely very China friendly in the first year. A major reason is America’s need for China to continue to buy US treasury bond in the midst of the economic meltdown in America. A lot of people got nervous or angry by the fact that Obama/Hilary put human rights on the back burners, but I think that is overplayed. I always think that it’s far more effective to encourage China and explain the importance of human rights privately rather than embarrassing the Politburo in public. I do think that Obama gave in too much to China in some of the early negotiations like his visit to China, because it emboldened China to ask for more and give in less to US in future negotiations. In many ways, this is the expected path. Washington insiders cannot expect America to negotiate from a position of absolute strength like during Clinton years, because China is just so much stronger now economically and politically. I don’t really want to put military in there, because China’s recent success comes from its status as the world’s leading creditor nation. As history as shown, power flows to where money is and that is playing out again in China today. Now that Washington has elevated China to be the other super power of the world in the past world, it would be hard to push back Chinese ambitions. We have a problem now where the Chinese leadership also has to satisfy and listen to the growing middle class that is more nationalistic and confident than ever. So, as Washington is pressing Obama to get more out of China, the Chinese population is also pressuring the Politburo to not give up any of its new found power. With this kind of power struggle between the two countries, it’s not surprising that we have run into the current row.
Now, to turn on our attention to the point of contentions of the recent weeks: Taiwan, Tibet, Google and Iran. If we start with Iran, we all know what the issue is here. China has a lot of money invested in the country and relies on Iran for future energy supply. You know we can say a lot about the type of regime in the country, but US is also dealing with a lot of unsavory characters in the Middle East. The question is whether or not it makes sense for China to support tougher sanctions in Iran. I actually think it does, but there is obviously a limit that China can go without risking all of its major contracts in Iran. The reason to support tougher sanctions on Iran are many. Even though Iran may not be as actively developing nuclear weapon or as further along in its development as the Israelis think, it does openly taunt the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The danger to China is that more countries will seek for nuclear weapon and countries like Japan and South Korea will also develop it. I don’t think China is willing to accept that kind of strategical change. The more immediate threat comes from Israel. Now, the Israeli gov’t seemed to have given the Obama administration a deadline in harsh sanctions against Iran before it launches strikes against Iran’s nuclear targets. If that happens, Iran could cause all sort of problems in the Middle East if it manages to carry out its threat of shutting down oil/gas supplies in that region. Surging energy prices and instability in Middle Easts are definitely things that China would be afraid of. I’m really not sure how this will turn out. I can see that Israel will continue to ask for more from US and US will continue to ask for more support from China/Russia. At the end, I really don’t think US will get what it wants from China.
As for Google, I think this is more about China’s general cyber espionage effort against US governments and corporations rather than just Google. Let’s face it, these “attacks” against Google were attempts to get emails of human right activists rather than bringing down Google’s servers. It is not like we don’t know that China’s human rights record is rather poor. Rather than complaining to the Chinese gov’t and the media, the US government should run a similar cyber effort against China. And I think they are doing that, because China also claims to face a lot of cyber attacks. So in the end, I really don’t have a lot of sympathies for the US government or Google. Google is making a lot of noises about leaving China, but it is still operating in China with the self imposed censor turned on (despite its public claims otherwise). Like all other big corporations, it’s number 1 goal is to make more money. If it thinks that the cost of business outweighs the benefits, then it will leave the country. Clearly, the other 30 target firms are not going anywhere. The US government is in a position to fight fire with fire. If US wants to remain the IT leader of the world, then it should be able to create security and infiltrate other networks better than any other countries in the world. I think this issue will die down as soon as Google finds a solution with the Chinese gov’t. I really don’t think it will leave the country, because it does not want to totally abandon the search engine and especially the cell phone market for the future.
As a result of not receiving Chinese support on some issues, I think the recent moves are calculated actions by the Obama administration saying that we are not going to play “nice guy” with you anymore. Taiwan and Tibet are certainly the two things that agitate China more than anything else. To much of the Western world, Taiwan is just an Asian nation with a democratic gov’t threatened by China and Tibet is a land occupied by the brutal repression of China. Of course, the sympathetic image of Tibet is played up by the non-threatening zen-like image of Dalai Lama. The image of Dalai Lama as this international loved religious leader has basically elevated Tibet freedom ahead of many other larger and more repressed groups. One would really have to study Chinese history to see why the Chinese gov’t and its people have such a dislike to Taiwan Independence and Dalai Lama.
To the Chinese people, the 100 years from 1840 to 1949 was its century of humiliation where it had to give up part of its sovereignty and surrender its land to foreigners. It is important to take back all that it was forced to give up during that period. When China was negotiating with UK for the return of Hong Kong, Deng Xiaoping actually told Margaret Thatcher that “China is not Argentina” and that China would take Hong Kong back by force if necessary. So to Chinese people, Taiwan is a reminder that China was forced to give up land to foreign occupiers during that century. To Chinese people, Tibet was a backward, feudal region that was briefly taken away early this century and was liberated of those oppressive Lamas and foreigners in 1950s. Of course, there are strategic element to it. The navy does not think that it can truly operate beyond the first chain until the hostile ROCN is no longer at its door step. The army believes that it needs Tibet as a buffer zone and natural barrier that protects the nation from the Indians. There are obviously more to it. Most Chinese people believe that Han people everywhere are really Chinese and should rejoin China. They find the Dalai Lama request for true autonomy (This Forbes Article contains the key facts) to be more appalling for the following reasons:
- The land requested by Dalai Lama is not just the current Tibet autonomous region, but also includes large parts of surrounding provinces.
- These lands are requested despite the fact that Han population have long been the majority in some of those areas.
- The so called autonomy actually sounds more like sovereignty, because Chinese troops is no longer allowed on the land. There is no way that PLA can accept this due to the strategic implications against India.
- Dalai Lama requested China to stop transferring Han population to Tibet, but that has never actually happened. How can the 3 million Tibetans remain in majority if PRC actually tried to relocate Han people there?
- Dalai Lama, the former feudal ruler of Tibet with many slaves, is insincere when it comes to democracy for Tibetans.
Therefore, the divergence of opinion on the military sale to Taiwan stems from how the West and China sees Taiwan. Most Westerners believe that Taiwan is a separate sovereign entity that should only rejoin China if it wishes to do so. Therefore, Americans see these military sales as fulfilling the Taiwan Relation Act by providing Taiwan with additional defensive deterrent. The weapons themselves are very advanced, but they are defensive in nature and are not going to change the military balance across the straits. The best hope for Taiwan is still to make peace with China and maintaining strong relationship with America. So, what is the problem? Well, most Chinese people believe that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China that no other country should interfere with. Therefore, any sales to Taiwan is looked as containing Chinese power, violating its sovereignty and interfering with its internal affairs. While this might have been acceptable in the past, the increasingly confident Chinese public are no longer willing to keep quiet to such snobs. The meeting with Dalai Lama stokes anger in China for similar reasons. The Politburo has to make a lot of noise and take what appears to be strong actions to satisfy the public. In the past, we have often heard cases where the government publicly criticizes another head of state meeting Dalai Lama, but then telling them privately that things will be business as usual. I tend to think that will happen again here. They will make a lot of noise and suspend military contacts, but those things will be re-established sometimes next year. I don’t think the Obama administration needs to meet Dalai Lama again or sell weapons to Taiwan again for a few years, so things should smooth out by later this year. At the end of the day, it is in China’s interest to have strong working relationship and military exchanges with America. The PRC leadership is too pragmatic to let this drag on. On the other hand, I think the sanctions against US companies could happen. Since US has been sanctioning Chinese companies for years for doing business with Iran, I think punishing American companies for helping Taiwan is pretty logical. They really don’t do much business with Lockheed and Raytheon, so any kind of sanctions against them would be quite symbolic. They do a lot of business with Boeing, but Boeing is selling very minimal to Taiwan. The trickiest case here is Sikorsky and its parent company UTC. They do a ton of business with UTC. In fact, PLA even operates some blackhawk helicopters, some unmanned version of S-300C and PWC engines on some helicopters/air planes. Can they really sanction a company that they sort of depends on for some secondary defense project? Especially now that Eurocopter announced recently that they are also selling to Taiwan. Can China sanction Eurocopter when it is partners with Eurocopter on so many projects? We will see. I tend to think that any sanctions against US/EU companies over weapons sale to Taiwan at the moment would not be more symbolic than anything else. Maybe they will warn these companies that any future sales would be met with harsher sanctions.
In general, I think we have entered a phase where the Politburo has to be more vocal against US government and companies for support toward Taiwan and Tibet, because the public and the military demand it. Politburo can no longer accept explanations like “the previous administration did it” or “these weapons are only defensive” or “we have to do it for political reasons” and remain quiet, because it has to satisfy the local population and the military too. At the moment, the retaliatory actions will remain mostly air like in previous occasions, but they will be a lot stronger in the future if US decides to sell an offensive platform like F-16 to Taiwan. Basically, the balance of power between the two nations is shifting and the Chinese responses against perceived US snubs are only going to get stronger.