All 'AmeriChina' cards on table

2010-07-15Asia Times

BEIJING - There is no international political engagement more important than Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to the United States at the end of November.

The trip should give new impetus to relations between today's two major powers: China and America, or if you prefer a moniker for this exclusive group - AmeriChina, or even the Group of 2.

Between now and November, diplomats from both sides hope the two countries can overcome a series of complex problems to make the meeting a success. Bilateral relations nowadays are held hostage to several twisted military and strategic issues that are central - much more so than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - to global politics and future economics.

The bilateral military dialogue so far has stalled because Washington wants to talk without changing much of the present situation, while Beijing wants America to first resolve the issues of arms sales to Taiwan and US surveillance/spying missions around China.

America providing weapons to Taiwan has long been a thorn in Beijing's side. Relations between Beijing and Taipei have improved markedly in recent years. The two parties established direct channels of communications and transport (rather than going through Hong Kong) and signed a free-trade agreement in early July that effectively integrates the island's economy with that of the continent. Reunification is a now only a political question, and a path that neither party is eager to hasten along.

The only potential stumbling block comes from Taiwan's theoretical military strength (the island is independent de facto but not de jure), which can repel a theoretical attack from the mainland.

While the possibility of an attack is all very theoretical, it has very practical consequences: if Taipei has an army capable of defending the island, not only can Taiwan always resist the mainland’s siren song, it can also decide to suddenly declare formal independence.

This is the ideal platform for the Democratic Progressive Party, the opposition party in Taiwan, and it also provides significant political leverage against Beijing.

If Taiwan - like China, with a majority of ethnic Han - became formally independent, why should Xinjiang or Tibet remain part of China, since these regions have local populations that aren't even Han? If Xinjiang and Tibet became independent, Beijing would lose about half its national territory.

In other words, the sale of American weapons to Taiwan supports the forces that want to dismantle parts of China.

On the other hand, America is obliged to sell those arms because of a law passed by the US Congress. And anyway, if America were to stop selling weapons to Taiwan, the American public might see this as if a timid US were handing over the Taiwan lamb to the China wolf.

In the past, the issue was on the backburner, but now it has become more urgent because Beijing is making a lot of progress with Taiwan and wants to close the arms issue to ensure the momentum is not put into reverse.

Furthermore, there is America's surveillance on China. US ships and aircraft conduct about a thousand missions a year around China, including surveying the seabed (ie, preparing for possible attacks by submarines) and detecting the capacity of Chinese military technology.

There have been incidents, such as last year and in 2001, and these could have turned into more significant clashes.

To avoid possible escalation, the US would like to establish a bilateral code of conduct for the missions. China opposes this because a code of conduct would establish almost an official adversarial relationship with the US, almost like an old Cold War enemy. Plus, the code would apply only to the United States because Beijing is unable to perform similar actions around US territory - nor is such action part of China's strategy.

Finally, there is the problem of the sale of dual-use (civil and military) technology by the US to China. Such technology could - as with nuclear power - reduce growing carbon emissions in Beijing. Here, Washington has made concessions, but they are minimal according to Beijing, and China would like to take more.

Before 1989, the Americans gave or allowed third parties to give much technology to China, but after the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, the US imposed an embargo that still stands. It would take a great deal of bilateral negotiation to lift that, and this condition is also complicated by the fact that many neighbors, from Japan to India, feel squeezed by China's growth. They fear a US move toward Beijing would definitely change the political and economic balance in Asia, and then around the world.

These three levels of problems interact with one another and touch on other issues, such as how the transfer of technology would affect sensitive environmental issues, the development of technology, and even economic growth.

A massive transfer of American technology to China would help US industry, which is now practically in recession, and help the world out of its financial crisis. But at what strategic cost, the generals are asking?

These issues are so thorny that it is impossible to solve them in a few months. The novelty is that for the first time, the two sides seem to be putting everything on the table. This is an important step forward because only by expressing clearly what they want can the parties make progress.

In light of the growing importance of the two nations, greater understanding between Washington and Beijing is beneficial for all since it would enhance global security and development - or at least this is true in a general sense.

Indeed, the new "AmeriChina" casts a shadow on Europe, marginalizing the continent politically. New US-China ties must take into account the new balance of Asia-Pacific power, but it is absolutely independent of what happens in the old continent, which is exhausted by internal divisions.

Thus, long-term European well-being could be in question. Military and strategic considerations in this case come before industrial ones, so the economy of Europe could suffer the consequences of becoming more marginal. The effects probably won't be felt tomorrow, but already the day after tomorrow is in doubt. (2010-07-15 Asia Times)


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