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

China Spats

August 5, 2010

Ted Galen Carpenter
August 3, 2010

Relations between China and the United States
have become decidedly testy in recent weeks.
Sharp disagreements over policy toward North
Korea and the status of disputed islands in the
South China Sea especially have raised tensions.

The spat regarding North Korea erupted in the
aftermath of the sinking of the South Korean
naval vessel Cheonan. Obama administration
officials were surprised and disappointed at
China's reaction. U.S. policy makers were already
annoyed at Beijing's long-standing reluctance to
pressure its ally regarding its provocative
nuclear program. But China's failure to condemn
Pyongyang's rogue behavior in the Cheonan episode was seen as inexcusable.

Nevertheless, the Chinese government did not
waver in its support of North Korea. Beijing
insisted that the UN Security Council resolution
condemning the Cheonan sinking not name Pyongyang
as the perpetrator. Washington reluctantly
accepted such language rather than risk a Chinese
veto, but U.S. officials were not happy, and they
publicly criticized China's stance.

While that dispute was flaring, tensions erupted
regarding the South China Sea. At an ASEAN
Regional Forum meeting in Hanoi, Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton asserted that "the United
States has a national interest in freedom of
navigation, open access to Asia's maritime
commons, and respect for international law in the
South China Sea.” She went on to advocate a
binding code of conduct for the various nations,
including China, that make claims to disputed
islands in that body of water. Clinton also
proposed the development of an institutional
process for resolving those disputes, and
indicated that the United States wanted to participate in that process.

Beijing's reaction was swift and hostile. Foreign
Minister Yang Jiechi portrayed Clinton's remarks
as "an attack" on China. Questioning Washington's
sincerity on the issue, he stated that "nobody
believes there's anything threatening the
region's peace and stability." Finally, Chinese
leaders made it very clear that they believed the
United States had no legitimate role to play in
resolving competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Beijing's uncooperative attitude has played into
the hands of hawks in the United States. Writing
in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, American
Enterprise Institute scholar Daniel Blumenthal
praised Clinton for standing up "to China's
bullying." But he regarded such surprising
fortitude merely as a good beginning. He went on
to propose that the United States orchestrate a
de facto diplomatic and military containment policy against Beijing.

China's behavior has become a matter of
understandable concern. But the United States
must pick its battles in terms of taking
hard-line stances. We can't prevail on every
issue. Many of the same experts and pundits who
want the Obama administration to adopt an
uncompromising attitude on territorial claims and
navigation rights in the South China Sea and
pressure China regarding its lack of effective
help regarding North Korea also want Washington
to confront Beijing on such matters as Taiwan,
China's currency valuation, the treatment of
domestic dissidents and the status of Tibet.
There is a marked unwillingness to set priorities.

Beijing's failure to rein in an increasingly
reckless Pyongyang is a legitimate security issue
for the United States. So too are China's
breathtakingly broad claims in the South China
Sea. China regards virtually that entire sea as
its territorial waters -- something that, if
enforced, would have profound implications for
international navigation and commerce. As the
world's leading maritime and trading power, the
United States cannot tamely accept such a brazen
attempt to change the status of international
waters through which much of the world's commerce flows.

But even on those issues, Washington needs to
understand that some concessions may need to be
made to secure Chinese cooperation. It is
unrealistic to expect, for example, that China
will incur the risks involved in pressuring North
Korea if the United States offers nothing in
return. Beijing worries that coercing Pyongyang
could cause Kim Jong-il's regime to
unravel—perhaps even cause the North Korean state
itself to implode, much as East Germany did at
the end of the 1980s. That development would
produce massive refugee flows into China, and
possibly result in the emergence of a united
Korea closely allied to the United States and
with a U.S. military presence on the peninsula.

If we want China to take on serious risks to tame
North Korea, we have to offer some incentives.
Promising to assist Beijing in dealing with the
probable refugee problem would seem to be the
absolute minimum. In all likelihood, Chinese
leaders would also want a commitment to phase out
American military bases in Korea if the North
Korean threat were neutralized. Yet Washington
has not offered the slightest hint of concessions
on either issue. U.S. officials implicitly expect
Beijing to accept the risks entailed in getting
tough with Pyongyang but receive nothing at all in return.

Likewise, getting China to be more restrained in
its South China Sea territorial claims may
require concession on other issues. A trade-off
might involve recognizing more limited Chinese
claims in that area, combined with a willingness
to cut back on U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. There
may be other possibilities, but the underlying
point is that Washington must be prepared to be flexible.

Finally, if we are going to focus -- as we should
-- on issues that have direct relevance to
important American interests, U.S. policy makers
need to de-emphasize topics that are less
relevant. However much China's domestic
human-rights policies might offend us, we can do
little about them. And they are not especially
pertinent to America's economic and security
interests. That is equally true regarding
Beijing's regrettable treatment of Tibet. We're
simply not going to prevail on such issues, and
turning them into acrimonious disputes needlessly
riles the crucial U.S.-China relationship.

Setting priorities and understanding that
diplomatic bargaining and a willingness to make
concessions is usually necessary to get desired
results on important issues is the mark of an
adept, effective policy. Unfortunately, that
realism seems largely absent in the American
foreign-policy community regarding relations with China.

* Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense
and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute,
is the author of eight books and more than four
hundred articles on international affairs. His
latest book is Smart Power: Toward a Prudent
Foreign Policy for America. He is also a
contributing editor to The National Interest.
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