By Jonathan Power
Foreign affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune for 20 years and guest columnist for New York Times
Not since the early Cold War days, when the US and NATO effectively encircled the Soviet Union, feeding Stalin’s paranoia, has America moved to be so profoundly counterproductive. It is now beginning to encircle China - at least that is how China is seeing it.
Of course “encircling” is a bit of an exaggerated notion since the Soviet Union was too large ever to be totally encircled. Likewise today China is content with the state of affairs on its long Russian, Mongolian and North Korean borders. But “encircling” does suggest a process.
Why of all people is President Barack Obama initiating this? We may not know the answer to that but we do know what he is doing.
It is true that in the last few years China, in Washington’s eyes, has slapped the Americans a few more times than necessary. The US regularly (but mistakenly) sells arms to Taiwan, but although the rhetoric was always strong nothing substantial was done until two years ago when China announced sanctions against US companies with ties to Taiwan. Also that year China angrily protested US-South Korean naval exercises and the detention by Japan of the captain of a Chinese fishing boat. Public opinion in China appeared to be very angry. China also went to war with the Nobel Peace Prize committee for awarding it to the democracy activist, Liu Xiaobo, imposing economic santions on Norway. “The peaceful rise of China seemed to be over," said influential members of the Obama administration especially in the military- as if such incidents hadn’t happened before.
So in 2010 Obama initiated what has been called a “pivot” to Asia, a shift in strategy aimed at bolstering the US’s defence ties with countries near China and expanding the US naval presence.
" China is not an expansionist power. There is no excuse for invading Tibet or threatening Taiwan but this is not what we mean by expansionism. The Chinese, fairly or unfairly, regard these as old Chinese territories "
According to Professor Robert Ross, an associate of Harvard’s centre for Chinese studies, writing in the current issue of “Foreign Affairs”,“This shift was based on a fundamental misreading of China’s leadership. Beijing’s tough diplomacy stemned not from confidence in its might- but from a deep sense of insecurity born of several nerve-racking years of financial crisis and social unrest.” China’s leaders decided to sustain their popular legitimacy by appeasing an increasingly nationalistic public with symbolic gestures of force.
“Instead of inflating estimates of Chinese power”, Ross writes, “and abandoning its long-standing policy of diplomatic engagement, the US should recognise China’s underlying weakness and its own enduring strengths.”Not least the US has greatly overestimated China’s military capabilities.
Under the great reformer, Deng Xiaoping, who brought capitalism to China, the Chinese defence budget went down. Only later once economic growth began its stratospheric rate of increase did defence spending go up. The military’s resources have been boosted. Yet this must be kept in perspective. Over the last 10 years the military has not deployed any new ships or aircraft that significantly enhanced its ability to challenge US maritime superiority. China’s main tool is a fleet of diesel submarines that have been in service since the mid 1990s. Even its newly-acquired first aircraft carrier- a refurbished rather small ex-Russian vessel-will not be greatly effective for a long time. China has just begun constructing guided-missile destroyers, but these will pale into comparison with the American Aegis-class destroyer fleet. According to the Pentagon less than 30% of China’s naval surface, air and air defence forces and only 55% of its submarine fleet could be considered modern. There is no challenge there for America.
China is not an expansionist power. There is no excuse for invading Tibet or threatening Taiwan but this is not what we mean by expansionism. The Chinese, fairly or unfairly, regard these as old Chinese territories. As to its claims to more parts of the South China Sea than the Law of the Sea allows, much of it can be put down to in-fighting between various parts of the Chinese bureaucracy and lack of politiburo involvement. It could be assuaged by persuading China to take the disputes to the International Court of Justice - as Nigeria did (and gracefully lost) with its dispute with Cameroon over the oil-rich Bokassa peninsular.
" The US has reinforced its presence in Indo-China, carrying out for the first time joint naval training. In South Korea the winding down of the US military presence and military exercises has been reversed "
The US has reinforced its presence in Indo-China, carrying out for the first time joint naval training. In South Korea the winding down of the US military presence and military exercises has been reversed. The US has directly inserted the US into the legally-complex disputes in the island territorial disputes between China, Vietnam and the Philippines. It has set up a base in Australia.
Already we can see why China feels itself provoked and is prone to retaliate. For example, it is no longer working with Washington to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear bomb programme.
Obama should stop this “encirclement” before it goes too far. As Winston Churchill said, “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.”
Comments - 2
Jay Sunday, 09 December 2012 01:24 PM
America is evil country..destroys poor countries through cultural and armed invasion USA is satan.
Alex Saturday, 08 December 2012 07:22 AM
countries like ours crash and burn while big bullies round each other.
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