The two American presidential candidates give the impression of being rather hostile towards China. This is counterproductive. “The US should not adopt confrontation as a strategy of choice. In China, the US would encounter an adversary skilled over the centuries in using prolonged conflict as a strategy and whose doctrine emphasizes the psychological exhaustion of the opponent.
In an actual conflict both sides possess the capabilities and ingenuity to inflict catastrophic damage on each other. By the time any such hypothetical conflagration drew to a close, all participants would be left exhausted and debilitated. They would then be obliged to face anew the very task that confronts them today: the construction of an international order in which both counties are significant components”. Henry Kissinger who wrote this four years’ ago, was the architect, along with his boss, President Richard Nixon, of the US’s rapprochement with China which led to Communist China taking up its seat on the Security Council and to full diplomatic recognition.
But these days China has begun to feel the old Soviet paranoia that it is being not only contained but encircled. The US of President Barack Obama has been giving it a hard time. The dispute over the ownership of the islands in the East and South China Seas is profoundly threatening for most members of China’s governing elite. Indeed they are right to feel partially encircled. China has no friends to the east and to the south, except North Korea. To the west it has the old Asian Soviet republics, also Cambodia and Laos but not the Indian subcontinent- no longer can its old ally Pakistan be counted on. Only to the north, Russia and Mongolia, does it have secure friends. So if these islands are contested China feels that its outer ring of safety, its “military windbreaks”, is imperilled.
Yes, this is probably paranoia but US diplomacy as presently conducted is unlikely to dissuade Beijing of this belief. Nor will the adverse ruling of an international court adjudicating the application of the Law of the Sea (which China adheres to) change its mind.
Obama’s decision to sail his warships into waters near the islands that China claims as its own is the kind of provocation that Kissinger warns is dangerous. Serious confrontation is not likely in the immediate future. China is too bound up with developing its vast hinterland of poverty. China is also well aware of its geo-political weaknesses (although the renewal of its former deep friendship with Russia has raised its self-confidence). It has also been careful not to raise the stakes. It has not expanded its maritime claims. The claims in the South China Sea which it defends are long-standing. Nevertheless, the US should not count on a state of permanent non-conflict. It needs to be less assertive if long-term trust is to be built.
The US must keep reminding itself – as should China- to keep a sense of proportion over the island disputes. If China increases the size of its national waters by insisting on its ownership of the islands there is still plenty enough of sea to enable free right of passage for everyone else. It is not a war-time situation and one must work on the premise that is how it must always be. Red lines must not be drawn. Any other view point could lead to confrontation that, as Kissinger warns, would be catastrophic for everyone. It is not “One must hope for the best and plan for the worst”. That attitude will not work, for planning for the worst by the US would merely convince China that the intention is to encircle it.
Some argue that to get a true peace with China the US must revise its attitude to Taiwan, the offshore island-power house that was settled by the retreating Kuomintang forces of the anti-communist Chiang Kai-shek when he faced defeat at the hands of the communist army of Mao Zedong. Since then the US has always sworn to remain Taiwan’s protector as an independent state. But some Americans are arguing that the US should end this commitment.
Taiwan has become a democracy. The Kuomintang lives on as one of the two main political parties in Taiwan but when in power it moderates its anti-Chinese stand, building trade, investment and air links. When the liberal opposition is in power, as they are now, they play down the independence urge which is their credo. The status quo survives. And Taiwan continues its life as the number one source of technological expertise and investment for the mainland. China would not want to ruin this by war, unless seriously provoked.
Confrontation over the islands is not necessary. Nor is accommodation over Taiwan’s freedom. The status quo in both cases is the best option. The next American president must emphasise harmony. It will probably be reciprocated.