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Looking Forward: Illusions About China Come Home To Roost

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on September 5th, 2011

The news today that the Chinese had confronted an Indian naval vessel on the high seas as it left Vietnam (See Financial Times, August 31) shook and alarmed me more than any other incident has in the four decades since I started study of Chinese.

China would appear suddenly to be in a hurry to become the dominant power in Asia. She has laid claim as territorial waters to the whole of what in Chinese is called “nanhai” the “South Sea” and in English the “South China Sea”—some 648,000 square miles. Now she seems to have set her course to enforce this—despite the fact that the claim has no historical merit, violates established international law, and puts China at odds with nearly all of her neighbors.

I will not fill this short essay with a bill of particulars. This would be a long list of violations of territory, claims of sovereignty, interference with navigation, damming of the Tibetan headwaters of the chief Southeast Asian and Indian rivers, etc. over a curve running from Japan all the way to the new Chinese naval base in Pakistan.

Rather I would like to state the importance of this moment. This is the time when the fundamental assumptions of forty years of American Asian diplomacy came crashing down.

The particulars by and large do not lend themselves to a variety of interpretations. No doubt some of the China watchers and specialists who for decades have assured us that China was moderating its dictatorship, becoming more mindful of international norms, seeing the advantages of being a “responsible stakeholder” (to quote poor Robert Zoellick, a man of many achievements who will be remembered for those two words) and so forth—no doubt some of these people will still make the case for the Chinese government.

A sudden turn like what we are seeing with China, however, tends to throw some people off the floats and out of the parade—and their number will increase as the situation becomes more fraught.

Just as frightening to me as the Chinese behavior is the total lack of official American preparedness for it. To be sure, some people in Defense Department are “alarmed” as one source put it to me. And Vice President Biden was reportedly very shaken by his trip to China.

The problem is that we have never seriously considered what we would do if China turned out not to be what we deluded ourselves into imagining.  By making irresponsible and foolish cuts in what was already a minimal defense budget; having cancelled the F-22 based on faulty projections of China’s growth in capability, and so forth; not to mention insisting on pursuing Chinese “friendship” (we need respect) like a comic suitor from an opera by Mozart or Rossini—by doing these things we have only persuaded China that we were not long for Asia.

What can Beijing make of a country that, by tolerating massive trade deficits as a result of China’s controlled currency, has in effect paid for that country’s massive military build-up? And thrown in lots of technology too, acquired either by joint ventures, trade, or espionage?

Of a country that, when China conspicuously fails to reassure or promise peace, reacts by seeking out self-reassurance from our own “experts” who can always find an explanation?

In the course of a summer China has not only rendered obsolete, but also shown to be wrong, many shelves of books on US-China relations, great stacks of journal articles and op-eds on the same topic, along with solemn reports from the Council on Foreign Relations (for whose China task force document I wrote a long dissent) and other such organizations, not to mention many thousands of hours of now patently useless talk.

Now is a tipping point, a paradigm shift, a moment when the chickens come home to roost and the eggs hit the fan.

How will we respond? We have never really thought about it, but a lot of our response is already laid out in treaties and pronouncements that even a year ago few thought would ever be invoked.

We have repeatedly assured the Japanese that we would defend them and their territories, including the Senkaku Islands, which China is now patrolling as part of their territory—though the Japanese hold them. Secretary Clinton responded appropriately when China began pushing the Southeast Asian countries around last year, by demonstrating American solidarity. We have all but committed ourselves to defend Taiwan.

Alliances are important, and we have some good ones in Asia. The problem is that now they will be tested.

Our now long-established pattern of putting good relations with China ahead of recognizing realities has, I fear, persuaded China that we can be misled and manipulated in such a way as to leave our Asian allies without defense.

Sad to say, opinion in this country, and elite opinion in particular, will be divided as to whether we honor those alliances. One former professor and China specialist asked me some time ago whether we might not be able to “steer a middle course” between those commitments and what China wants.

What shall we do? That is a topic for another essay but the answer, in a nutshell, is to persuade China that we are dead serious, that our period as a major power is not over or even close to being over, and that they must consider their neighbors’ interests carefully.

I fear that right now they feel they have us figured out as credulous, ineffective and declining; their neighbors as weak and easy to overawe. Sun Tzu after all said that the best is to win without fighting. That is something of which history affords no example I can think of offhand. Even the Czechs had to be browbeaten and threatened by the British and French before they unwillingly caved in.

Let us hope that China does not imagine that this time is different.

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