Join our Mailing List

"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Asking China to Act Like the U.S.

December 4, 2010

By Helene Cooper
NY Times
Tuesday, November 30, 2010

WASHINGTON — A fundamental tenet of foreign policy says that nations will seldom voluntarily act against what they have determined, for whatever reason, to be their own national interest.

Somebody needs to tell that to the United States when it comes to China, many foreign policy experts say.

A key part of America’s relationship with China now turns on a question that is, at its heart, an impossible conundrum: How to get Beijing to make moves that its leaders don’t think are good for their country?

From economics to climate change to currency to Iran and finally culminating with North Korea last week, America has sought to push, prod and cajole China, to little or no avail.

Beijing has resisted letting its currency rise because it depends on the cheap yuan to drive its export-heavy economy. China has balked at stiff sanctions to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions because it needs access to Iran’s oil and gas fields to fuel its own growth. Beijing doesn’t want to curb carbon emissions because its ability to lift hundreds of millions of people into the middle class over the coming years is directly linked to its increased use of energy.

And, finally, Beijing has recoiled at reining in its unruly neighbor to the east, as the Obama administration implored it to do last week, because it doesn’t want to destabilize North Korea’s secretive, hermit regime to an extent that could lead to the government’s collapse and the North’s eventual reunification with South Korea.

“China isn’t 100 percent on board with U.S. efforts,” said Andrew L. Oros, an Asia expert at Washington College, in Chestertown, Md., because Beijing is “concerned with the idea of a unified Korea with U.S. troops stationed there.”

That concern has left a succession of American governments attempting the impossible.

“Basically, the U.S. wants China to do what the U.S. wants it to do,” said Rodger Baker, vice president for strategic intelligence at Stratfor, a geopolitical risk analysis company. “We want to make sure that the world stays as the United States would like to see the world. Which means making China subservient to us in some cases. In the case of North Korea, the Chinese see it as the United States pushing its policy on China and not allowing the Chinese to make their own policy, while removing from China one of the tools that it has decided it needs for its own interests.”

In this case, that tool would be a divided Korea, with a North Korea that is beholden to and wholly dependent on China serving as a buffer against American encroachment in China’s backyard.

But the conundrum extends far beyond last week’s double Korean-peninsula whammy, which involved not only North Korea’s deadly shelling of a South Korean military installation, but also the disclosure of a just-completed centrifuge plant that could one day enable North Korea to enrich uranium into nuclear fuel and add to its arsenal of 8 to 12 nuclear weapons. All of that led to the broad effort from the Obama administration to enlist China to rein in Pyongyang.

So far, China is not biting, and will not bite, on either North Korea or the host of other issues, some experts say, until the United States changes not only its tactics, but the entire way that American governments view Beijing.

“We’re still struggling with a post-unilateralist hangover,” said David Rothkopf, author of “Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power.”

That hangover, he says, leads Americans to believe “that we’re the sole remaining superpower and the objective of our foreign policy is to get people to go along with that. To fall into step with our worldview. But the reality is, that’s not what the future holds.”

Rather, Mr. Rothkopf argues, the United States is heading into a future in which countries like China, with independent sources of power, are not reliant on or easily influenced by the United States, and so are pursuing their own national interests.

Some Obama administration officials say that they are aware of this shift, and have begun to adapt their strategy toward China accordingly. Mr. Obama’s recent trip to India, in which he endorsed India’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, should be viewed not only in the context of America and India, a senior administration official said, but America and China as well. “It’s part of a strategy in which China risks seeing the United States forming alliances in its neighborhood, which may not be to Beijing’s liking,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Likewise, Mr. Obama’s decision to accelerate the deployment of an American aircraft carrier group to the Yellow Sea for joint exercises with South Korea was meant in part to drive home a message to Beijing. Aware that China doesn’t like any kind of display of American military might in its backyard, Obama administration officials are hoping to change Beijing’s cost-benefit analysis until it decides that restraining North Korea is a lesser evil than seeing more American sailors playing war games outside its door.

“That’s not a threat,” the administration official said. “It’s a reality.”

But in the past three weeks, the United States has seen, in rapid-fire succession, China’s own determination to push back against American demands. At the Group of 20 leaders summit meeting in Seoul on Nov. 11, Mr. Obama tried to get the world to come down hard on China for its devalued currency, and saw Beijing turn the tables. Instead of America leading the world in hectoring China, Beijing led the world in hectoring the United States for a recent “quantitative easing” move by the Federal Reserve that international critics said had artificially lowered the value of the American dollar.

Coming so soon after the G-20 debacle, the North Korea impasse demonstrates the limits of American attempts to bend Beijing to its will, and a new reality that is emerging: a Sino-American relationship that, foreign policy experts say, must be carefully calibrated to balance American demands against what Beijing can be realistically persuaded to do.

Some conservative critics of the Obama administration say that the United States can manage this new reality only if it is tougher in its demands of Beijing. “I would turn up the pressure on China to reunite the Korean peninsula,” said John Bolton, who was the United States ambassador to the United Nations in the Bush administration. “This division is unnatural, and they need to get on the right side of history. And in the meantime, I would strangle North Korea economically, ramping up the P.S.I. activities,” a reference to military maneuvers in the Yellow Sea.

“I’d cut off all food aid; that’s turning up the pressure,” Mr. Bolton said. “What Obama’s doing right now is just rhetoric.”

Mr. Rothkopf, for his part, counters that it will take more than pressure to get Beijing to yield. He says that the United States must first determine the areas where China won’t bend, and work with Beijing to find compromises so that America is not in the impossible situation of trying to tell China to act against its own national interests. And the United States should work furiously to build up alliances with other countries in the region, he said.

“We have moved from the cold war era of bipolar reality through the brief bubble of sole superpower unilateral fantasy into a world of a new multipowered system which requires old-fashioned balance-of-power diplomacy,” Mr. Rothkopf said. The result, he said, may be that “all of a sudden, the old cobweb-infested State Department is more important than it’s been in many, many years.”
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank