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Is China a gatecrasher or bad host?

December 10, 2007

By Kurt Campbell and Nirav Patel
Taipei Times
Monday, Dec 10, 2007

Recent decisions by the Chinese to deny harbor to the USS Kitty Hawk on
Thanksgiving Day and the USS James Reuben for a New Year's Day visit not
only blocked hundreds of families from reuniting with their loved ones
but further reinforced for Americans that global politics are playing
out in places other than the battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan and at
the negotiating tables in Annapolis. Why the apparent sudden sea-change
in Chinese behavior?

China's lack of hospitality is in stark contrast to recent trends in
military-to-military relations that can be characterized as more
cooperative than contentious. Witness US Secretary of Defense Robert
Gates' successful meetings with Chinese defense officials last month.
However, China's contentious decisions over port calls have been widely
interpreted as a not so subtle signal to Washington policymakers that
the choice to honor the Dalai Lama and provide a US$900 million upgrade
to Taiwan's Patriot anti-missile system was at the root of the discord.

And yet, there may be larger forces at work, signaling a shift or at
least a debate among the Chinese elite over how best to deal with the US.

It has been understood that an abiding belief in China's foreign policy
is to do nothing to unduly antagonize the US -- particularly as the US
has been strategically preoccupied in the Middle East. Chinese leaders
appreciate that Washington will not easily cede its power or influence
in the Asia-Pacific region, and so they have been careful not to make
"Asia Pacific waves" during a period when the US is involved in quixotic
military quests in Afghanistan and Iraq.

 From the perspective of China's leaders, these are welcome detours that
should be encouraged and the best way to do this is by avoiding
unnecessary problems in Asia-Pacific. China's proactive role in the
North Korean nuclear negotiations is emblematic of this attitude.

However, recent examples suggest that hardliners, particularly in the
military, are growing more impatient with Beijing's generally cautious
and outwardly accommodating foreign policy. No longer are they willing
to avoid public friction and even confrontation with the US at all
costs. Observe China's successful anti-satellite test last January.

This is highlighted by Beijing's Olympic quality diplomatic jujitsu in
the UN to stall authorization for more robust action against Iran. This
is compounded by the occasional hint that China is preparing to flex its
growing financial muscle in ways inimical to Western interests by
unloading its mountain of US Treasury bills. All the while, China's
continuous hacking of Pentagon computers further suggests at least a
furtive antagonism is on the rise.

Individually, these events are perhaps inconsequential, but in sum, they
indicate a subtle shift towards a more assertive policy stance in China.

The wisest elders in China recognize that Beijing has to consolidate its
domestic and foreign policy position in order to become a more powerful,
and hopefully for the US, a more "responsible stakeholder" in the
international community. These moderate reformers counsel patience and
suggest that China is best served by biding its time and building its
strength before taking exception to what most in the Chinese elite see
as the indignities imposed by US actions when it comes to the three
"T's" -- Tibet, Taiwan and trade.

This approach, while prudent, requires China to turn the other cheek and
to avoid tensions and frictions with the US. This general stance in
global politics irritates many hardliners who are becoming more restless
and less tolerant of avoiding a problem with what they see as a big
global bully.

It is too early to tell the ultimate motivations behind Beijing's most
recent displays of displeasure with the US -- whether or not these are
part of a larger pattern that marks a substantial shift in behavior or
rather these are further proof of a lack of consensus at the top.

What is certain, however, is that the US will continue to play an
indispensible role as both economic and security guarantor in the

Washington must not let strategic challenges in the Middle East
undermine its ability to deal with complex strategic challenges in Asia.
The manifest challenge of US policy towards China in the near term will
be to provide clear incentives for continuing Chinese cooperation in the
complex international arena that lies ahead.

Kurt Campbell is chief executive officer and cofounder of the Center for
a New American Security in Washington. Nirav Patel is a research
associate specializing in Asian affairs.
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