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Pure Onsense

Chinese Aggression?

Scott Zuke

(May, 2011)  Having just recently overtaken Japan to become the worldís second largest economy, China has taken the reigns from the Soviet Union as the first nation in the post-Cold War era with the potential to rise to superpower status, and many Americans who see international relations as a zero-sum game view Chinaís ascendency as a threat to US power and prosperity, particularly with the amount of our debt they hold and their increasing pressure on world oil supplies.

While US policy has been to welcome the emergence of prosperous and peaceful China, the relationship has frequently been strained over issues including the status of Taiwan, Chinaís undervaluing of its currency in order to maintain competitive economic advantage, and its human rights record. Add to that their friendly relations with the likes of Iran, Burma, and North Korea, and their provocative military exercises, including destroying an orbiting satellite (the debris from which nearly crossed the path of the International Space Station recently), and itís a wonder that we still manage to maintain such close relations in so many other regards.

The question at the heart of determining appropriate policy toward China is whether they are acting irrational and aggressively, or rational and defensively. I argue the latter to be the case.

Consider some of their apparently aggressive actions in recent years. China has been accelerating the modernization of its nuclear and conventional arms technologies in order to be able to project its power further beyond its borders, raising concern among US allies Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, among others in the region. While not openly accusing it of aggressive intentions, American diplomats seek from China what they call "strategic reassurance." In the words of Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, "China must reassure the rest of the world that its development and growing global role will not come at the expense of security and well-being of others."

To understand the typical Chinese response to statements like this, itís important to understand Chinaís history. Weighing heavily on the countryís cultural recollection is memory of its "century of humiliation," a period from the mid-19th century through WWII during which China was carved up and exploited by foreign imperial forces from western Europe and Japan. Sovereignty against foreign influence and territorial security are thus deeply ingrained in Chinaís political decision-making process. The US fanned Chinaís fear of external coercion in the 1950s by using "nuclear blackmail" to restrict its involvement in the Korean War. In this light, Chinaís relatively small nuclear program, developed soon thereafter, can be seen as a rational and defensive response to coercive foreign policies that threatened its sovereignty.

And so, when US diplomats today call for China to "reassure" the rest of the world that they have benign intentions with their growing military capability, itís no surprise that their response is along the lines of, "If you donít have to, why should we?"

China is similarly defiant when it comes to criticism of its human rights record. The US regularly submits to the UN critical reports of the nationís human rights abuses, from imprisoning and executing political dissidents to widespread severe poverty. While I donít mean to downplay the importance of securing these human rights, when considering Chinaís history and defensive posture, this approach is clearly flawed. The Chinese government is understandably paranoid about internal social unrest and sees human rights rebukes as either external or internal attempts to delegitimize the government and spark a revolution.

Its response has been to release its own counter-report on the human rights record of the United States, pointing out all of our own flaws, from economic and racial inequality to high crime, high rate of incarceration, all the way down to such things as the average age in which children are first exposed to internet pornography.

The comparisons are fairly weak and unjustified, but thatís not really the point. The point can be seen in one recent reportís closing statement: "We hereby advise the U.S. government to take concrete actions to improve its own human rights conditions, check and rectify its acts in the human rights field, and stop the hegemonistic deeds of using human rights issues to interfere in other countries' internal affairs."

With a vast and regionally isolated empire, the Chinese central government has felt forced to exert stricter control over its populace and to prioritize certain development goals (namely economic growth) over others (political freedom and social well-being). It fears that the restrictions and alternative priorities being promoted by the West (which, after all, also once followed different value priorities) unfairly restrict its development potential. In this light, Chinaís defiance toward foreign chastisement can be seen as defensive and reasonable.

I believe the same understanding can be applied to other areas of tension and suspicion between the US and China. The implication of this hypothesis is that coercive policy toward China is unwise and will be ineffective, as China has consistently managed to outmaneuver these strategies. Instead, if China is asserting itself as a coequal power on the global stage and effectively resorting to disobedience when that status is challenged, then I believe the best way to bring about a better state of affairs would be to treat it as such by "cutting it some slack" on such things as human rights and military expansion, and to actively grant it greater influence in global economics. As Bergsten et al. suggest in Chinaís Rise: Challenges and Opportunities, we should consider establishing with them a "G-2" economic relationship and recognize, "the new role of China as a legitimate architect and steward of the international economic order."

Since China has successfully worked around US coercive or isolationist policy to become a strong and influential force on the global stage, its time to work with them, as two equal adults working in partnership, rather than as a parent scolding and setting boundaries for a rebellious teenager. Granting them greater respect and stewardship over global affairs would hopefully lead them to voluntarily move in policy directions that coercive policies have failed to bring about.

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