Bush, Hu to meet at crucial crossroad

2005-10-29Asia Times

BEIJING - China's President Hu Jintao is on his way to North Korea, where his task will be to wrest a clear commitment for nuclear disarmament from Kim Jong-il. This commitment should be brought to Beijing on November 8, when the next round of six-party talks is scheduled to start. If the talks make the US happy, Hu will have a clear sign of commitment and friendship to show to United States President George W Bush, who is due in Beijing around November 20.

However, this will not be the end of the story, but just the beginning as the US and China have a list of questions for each other, worries that go beyond the historic issue of Taiwan, which seems stable even if not resolved. As the shadow of Taiwan fades and China's economy booms, a new pattern of geopolitics in Asia is emerging and it is not clear how China and the US will react to each other.

China's main long-term question is this: will America object if China, perhaps even a democratic China, becomes richer and stronger than America? In the US, many claim that the main point of friction with China is ideological, and thus they press for human rights, freedom and democracy. In China, scholars and politicians wonder what problems will remain and grow perhaps starker if or when China becomes democratic.

Then, nationalist street protests would be harder to control. If China installed a fervently nationalist leadership, the US would be instilled with a sense of fear and panic when the Chinese economy threatened to overtake that of the US. Such fears would likely be greater if existing strong Chinese anti-Japanese sentiment were to merge with anti-American fervor.

The underlying question is this: what is US geopolitics in Asia? In the 1970s, the divide was clear: the US confronted the Soviet Union, and so had to make a deal with China. But now and for the next 10 or 20 years, what is the US agenda for East Asia? If it is about geopolitical confrontation with China, there is a paradox in the fact that an undemocratic China can better control public opinion and thus be less risky for the US than a democratic China pushed into confrontation by popular sentiment. Hence, the US geopolitical agenda is crucial also to the timetable of reforms in China.

On the other hand, of course, there are many questions from the US side. Yes, China historically has not invaded other countries, but that is history; will the future be like the past? In the past, China was an isolated and isolationist country; it developed along its rivers; it did not spread around the globe in search of raw materials. Now this is no longer true: China has a very active diplomacy, it develops along the coast, and roams the world for raw materials and industrial products. In the future, will it expand abroad, breaking the historical pattern? China now is committed to peace, but what about the Chinese rulers 20, 30 or 40 years from now, when the youngsters who marched for the national cause will have white hair and power?

Furthermore, there is the military build up. China says it has to grow militarily as well as economically and politically. So, when China becomes the world's leading economy, will it also strive to be the leading military power? And how will such power be used? At that point, it could be most dangerous if China were not democratic, as dictatorships are more prone to plunge into wars. But a democracy driven by nationalist fervor would pose its own major problems.

The experience of the CNOOC-Chevron takeover fight over Unocal has left a deep and lasting impression in Washington. Many did not understand the purpose of the whole exercise. Was China after US oil supplies? Was it trying to corner the energy market and then blackmail American consumers?

China can say and argue and explain that no, this was not the case, it was a business decision, and when we saw the highly negative US reaction, we withdrew. But the problem of how to handle the Chinese thirst for energy remains. It impacts the American market in two ways: 1) it pushes up energy prices and thus manufacturing and consumer costs in America; 2) it also pushes up manufacturing costs in China and the prices of consumers goods produced for the American market. The issue of China's energy supply then is crucial for the rest of the world, both developed and developing. The US wants and needs to know what exactly is China's stance in coping with the energy problem.

Then there is an issue that both China and the US have an imperial history, China in the past, the US more recently and at present. Empires need allies or vassals who shoulder part of the weight. China has no ally, no real friend and only some unruly partial vassals, like Myanmar or North Korea, which have no international standing and are despised by the international community.

China needs real friends, allies, countries with which to share its burdens. On the other side there is America with many allies - and also vassals. Is America thinking of having China as an ally, a vassal, or what? And what is China's basic thinking: does it want to be an empire again and how? In its imperial past China had no allies, only vassals, but now this is no longer enough. It needs to have allies with equal standing. But China has no tradition of that and does not really know how to cope with it. How can it learn - assuming it wants to learn? Can there be an alliance on equal footing with America in the future?

This brings in the fundamental issue of Japan. China insists that Japan's leaders have to stop visits to the Yasukuni shrine. But Japan suspects that behind the demand there is a hidden agenda: if Tokyo stops the visits it will assent to China's primacy in East Asia. Is China implying that Japan should bow down to China's primacy in the region?

The position of the US in this is very delicate. Although US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in October canceled his trip to Japan in implicit protest against Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit to Yasukuni and in response to difficulties over deciding the future of the US Okinawa bases, the US can't pressure Japan too much. If the US were to leave Japan alone, and take a more neutral stand between China and Japan, Tokyo would re-arm, posing an even greater challenge to regional stability as it would trigger further armament by China.

Behind this there is a broader question between China and Japan. Yes, economic ties have greatly improved. In the past several years China's trade deficit with Japan helped to boost Japanese economic performance and get the country out of the doldrums. According to Chinese data, in 2002 total Sino-Japanese trade was US$101.9 billion, 16.4% of total Chinese trade, and China had a deficit of US$5 billion. In 2003, total trade was US$133.5 billion, 31% more than the previous year, and the Chinese deficit went up to US$14.7 billion.

But there is the contentious issue of the gasfields around the contested Senkaku islands, claimed by both China and Japan. The contention is heated as both countries are energy-starved. There is also the clash over the route of the Russian pipeline in Siberia, there is the Japanese worry about the return of Taiwan to China, as 70% of Japanese energy supply and 50% of food supply are shipped past Taiwan. If the island returns to Chinese control it would be as if China had its hands around Japan's neck, according to concerned Japanese.

Then there is an issue of worldview and historical perspective. In Asia, it is not clear that the Cold War is over. Vietnam is united and is still "communist", "communist" China is alive and well and wants to take over Taiwan. One could argue that the Cold War continues in Asia, or that it ended with different results than in Europe, or that the Cold War in Asia was a whole different story than in Europe, as America befriended communist China in the 1970s.

Similarly, the history of World War II remains somewhat unsettled. Ma Ling [1] says that Japanese feel they have not lost the war to China but to the US and Russia, and that they still look down on China. One can push the argument further back: was the Japanese invasion of East Asia in the 1930s and the Japanese rule over Korea better or worse than that of the Euro-Americans? Was the Japanese victory over Russia in 1905 a matter of pride for the entire "yellow" race? Was what Japan did in Asia invasion or liberation from colonial rule?

In many of his writings the influential writer Wang Xiaodong speaks of the Chinese sense of inferiority [2], while Japanese authors like Shintaro Ishihara proclaim a new sense of superiority that worries people in China and Korea.

All of this makes it hard for the US to simply step aside in Asia. It demands greater US commitment in Asia, not less. But this commitment can't simply take the form of containment and of hedging China's rise.

New ideas, new frameworks, new talks, new answers - and surely even more questions - need to come out of the Bush visit to Beijing, for the good of the bilateral relationship and the welfare of the region.

[1] Ma Ling "Zhong-ri jianglai bi you yi zhan?", September 2005, Mingbao monthly.

[2] See for instance Wang Xiaodong "Chinese Nationalism Under the Shadow of Globalization", a speech delivered at the London School of Economics and Political Science, February 7, 2005 (2005-10-29 Asia Times)


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