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China’s Year of Living Dangerously

by PETER LEE

The passing year was the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) first opportunity to get up close and personal with the United States’ pivot back to Asia, the strategic rebalancing that looks a lot like containment.

The PRC spent a lot of 2012 wrestling with contentious neighbors emboldened by the US policy, like Vietnam and the Philippines; combating American efforts to nibble away at the corners of China’s spheres of influence on the Korean peninsula and Southeast Asia; and engaging in a test of strength and will with the primary US proxy in the region, Japan.

This state affairs was misleadingly if predictably spun in the Western press as “assertive China exacerbates regional tensions”, while a more accurate reading was probably “China’s rivals exacerbate regional tensions in order to stoke fears of assertive China.”

Whatever the framing, this was the year that the world – and in particular Japan – discovered that the PRC can and could kick back against the pivot.

The fat years for “rising China” were the presidencies of George W Bush. Preoccupied with cascading disasters in the Middle East, a burgeoning fiscal deficit that demanded a foreign partner with an insatiable appetite for US debt, and, later on, a meltdown in the US and world economies, Bush had no stomach for mixing it up with China.

The PRC took the ball and ran with it, emerging as an overpowering presence in East Asia, plowing into Africa, establishing itself as a crucial paymaster for the European Union, and hammering away at the final bastions of Western leadership of the post-World War II planet: the major multinational policy and financial institutions.

Rollback was inevitable, and it was pursued, purposefully, carefully, and incrementally under Barack Obama.

Also back is ineffable American self-regard. With the election and re-election of a black president from a modest background, the United States reclaimed as its assumed birthright the moral high ground, something that one might think the US had forfeited for a decade or two thanks to the Iraq War, American mismanagement of the global financial system, and the failure to face the existential issue of climate change.

It would have been amusing, in a grim sort of way, to see if the election of Mitt Romney as president would have elicited the same ecstatic neo-liberal squealing about the glories of American democracy that we saw with President Obama’s re-election. In any case, the comically inept Romney was no match for the popularity, intelligence, and relentless organizational focus of Obama and American self-righteousness – or, as Evan Olnos of the New Yorker would approvingly characterize it, America’s “moral charisma” – is back.

With the United States firmly back in the leadership saddle, at least as far as the foreign affairs commentariat is concerned, China has nothing to show the world except the flaws of an authoritarian political and economic system, nothing to teach except as an object lesson in how to avoid them, and no right to participate in any world leadership councils except by Western sufferance.

This attitude dovetails almost perfectly with Obama’s apparent disdain for the PRC as an opaque, unfriendly, and unsavory regime that responds to engagement with overreach, one that must be stressed, pressured, and coerced in order to drive it toward humanity’s preferred goals. Under the leadership of the Obama administration, the West has made the significant decision to restrain China instead of accommodate it.

China will be a welcome partner in the world order, at least defined by the West, only if it democratizes, dismantles its state-controlled economy, and adheres to the standards of liberal multinational institutions in seeking its place in the world order. These outcomes are so far off the radar as far as the current PRC leadership is concerned, the only near-term endgame on these terms is regime collapse.

That’s a risky bet. If the regime doesn’t collapse, a simmering, constitutional hostility between the PRC and its many antagonists is on the books for the foreseeable future.

China’s response has been to avoid confronting the United States head-on, instead probing for weaknesses in the US chain of proxies and allies, while trying to shore up weaknesses in its own proxies and allies.

The only unalloyed win for the PRC in East Asia in 2012 was the re-election of the Kuomintang’s Ma Ying-jeou as president of Taiwan. President Ma has a steady-as-she-goes policy of minimal friction with the PRC, in contrast to the fractious pro-independence and pro-Japanese Democratic Progressive Party. In 2012 he went a step further. In a move that was largely ignored in the Western press because it complicated the narrative of unilateral PRC thuggery, Ma dispatched a flotilla of official and unofficial vessels to give grief to the Japanese coastguard presence around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

Other than Taiwan, one of the brighter spots in the authoritarian firmament has been the gradual pro-China/pro-reform tilt of North Korea under Kim Jong-eun. The PRC is still making the Obama administration pay for its disastrous miscalculation in 2009, when the US thought that the PRC’s overwhelming trade ties with South Korea would cause Beijing to abandon North Korea in the aftermath of the Cheonan outrage (the sinking of a South Korean frigate by forces unknown, but widely assumed to be North Korea) and join the United States in a multi-lateral diplomatic and sanctions-fueled beatdown of the Pyongyang regime.

Instead, the late Kim Jung-il realized that his long-standing opera-bouffe efforts at engagement with the United States were futile and got on his armored train to journey into China and fall into the welcoming arms of Hu Jintao.

On the other side of the ledger, Myanmar threatened to slide out of the PRC camp with the decision of the government to rebalance its foreign policy away from China toward the United States and reach an accommodation with domestic pro-democracy forces. The necessary demonstrations of pro-democracy and pro-Western enthusiasm by the Thein Sein government were 1) the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and her return to public life and 2) postponement of the Myitsone hydroelectric project.

The Myitsone project was unpopular domestically because it was PRC-funded and had been adopted as a symbol of the casual sell-out of Myanmar interests to China by corrupt generals. Postponing Myitsone was popular with the West because it raised the possibility it would block development of Myanmar’s sizable hydroelectric potential by China and, instead, allow Western interests, shut out of the Myanmar economy for years because of sanctions, to reorient hydropower exports away from China and towards Thailand.

The PRC has responded cautiously to the Myanmar shift, apparently taking consolation in its dominant role in Myanmar’s economy, foreign trade, and security policy thanks to the long and porous border the two countries share.

Myanmar’s political elites, including Aung San Suu Kyi, apparently have decided that an anti-China economic jihad would be counter-productive and the PRC has good reason to hope that by upping its public relations game, spreading money around to deserving citizens both inside and outside politics (and perhaps discretely renegotiating some terms of some excessively favorable sweetheart deals with the Myanmar junta), it can successfully navigate the now dangerous shoals of Myanmar multi-party politics (in which a traditional strain of anti-Chinese populism has become an inevitable tool of political and popular mobilization).

In a sign that the United States also hoped to put Laos and Cambodia into play, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a rare visit to the Laotian capital of Vientiane before putting in an appearance at Phnom Penh for a get-together of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Results were mixed, as Cambodia loyally defended the PRC from an attempt to place an ASEAN united front versus China concerning a South China Sea mediation initiative on the agenda.

Cambodian and Laotian desires to distance themselves from the big bully of Asia, the PRC, are perhaps counterbalanced by their desire to keep the big bully of Southeast Asia, Vietnam, at bay. As for Vietnam, it has learned that, as far as the United States is concerned, China is not Iran and Vietnam is not Israel – at least for now, and quite possibly for always.

Even as the United States has vocally supported freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and a multilateral united front in dealing with the PRC, it has avoided “taking sides in territorial disputes” – the only kind of dispute that the nations surrounding the South China Sea care about, since “the PRC threat to freedom of navigation” in the area is little more than a nonsensical canard.

With the US Seventh Fleet unlikely to slide into the South China Sea and blast away at Chinese vessels as an adjunct to the Vietnamese navy, Vietnam appears to have drawn the lesson from the PRC’s ferocious mugging of Japan that the disadvantages of auditioning for the role of frontline state in the anti-China alliance may outweigh the benefits.

The big story in East Asian security affairs this year was the PRC’s decision to bully Japan, ostensibly over the idiotic fetish of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, but actually because of Tokyo’s decision to give moral and material support to the US pivot by once again making an issue of the wretched (Taiwanese) islands.

In 2010, China made the diplomatically disastrous decision to retaliate officially against a Japanese provocation – Seiji Maehara’s insistence on trying a Chinese fishing trawler captain in Japanese courts for a maritime infraction near the Senkakus. A relatively limited and measured effort to send a message to Japan by a go-slow enforcement effort in the murky demimonde of rare earth exports became a China bashing cause celebre, an opportunity for Japan to raise the US profile in East Asian maritime security matters, and an invitation to China’s other neighbors to fiddle with offshore islands and attempt to elicit a counterproductive overreaction from Beijing.

In 2012, the PRC was ready, probably even spoiling for a fight, seizing the opportunity even when the Yoshihiko Noda government clumsily tried to defuse/exploit the Senkaku issue by cutting in line in front of Tokyo governor and ultranationalist snake-oil peddler Shintaro Ishihara to purchase three of the islands.

This time, Chinese retaliation was clothed in the diplomatically and legally impervious cloak of populist attacks on Japanese economic interests inside China. The 2012 campaign did far more damage to Japan than the 2010 campaign, which was conceived as a symbolic shot across the bow of Japan Inc. The Japanese economy was not doing particularly well even before the 2012 Senkaku protests devastated Japanese auto sales and overall Japanese investment in China, raising the possibility that China might deliver a mortal blow, and not just a pointed message, to Japan.

The major US effort to refocus the economic priorities of Asia and offer material benefits to countries like Japan which line up against the PRC – the China-excluding Trans Pacific Partnership – is facing difficulties in its advance as economies hedge against the distinct possibility that China and not the United States (which is looking more like an exporting competitor than demand engine for Asian tigers) will be the 21st century driver of Asian growth.

It looks likely the US pivot into Asia will be a costly, grinding war of attrition fought on multiple fronts – with Japan suffering a majority of the damage – instead of a quick triumph for either side.

This year, let’s call it a draw.

Call it a draw in most of the rest of the world as well.

The Indian government apparently feels that the Himalayas provide an adequate no-man’s-land between the PRC and India and warily navigated a path between China and the United States.

With the re-election to president of Vladimir Putin and a return to a more in-your-face assertion of Russian prerogatives vis-a-vis the United States, Russia is less likely to curry favor with the US at Chinese expense than it was under Dmitry Medvedev.

On the other hand, the European Union, winner of the Nobel Prize for Pathetic Lurching Dysfunction, excuse me, the Nobel Peace Price, is desperately cleaving to the United States in most geopolitical matters, including a stated aversion to Chinese trade policies, security posture, and human rights abuses. It remains to be seen whether this resolve is rewarded by a recovery in the Western economies, or falls victim to Europe’s need for a Chinese bailout.

The most interesting and revealing arena for US-China competition and cooperation is one of the most unlikely: the Middle East. The PRC has apparently been attempting a pivot of its own, attempting to leverage its dominant position as purchaser of Middle Eastern energy from both Saudi Arabia and Iran into a leadership role.

With the United States approaching national, or at least continental self-sufficiency through domestic fracking and consumption of Canadian tar sands – and ostentatiously pivoting into Asia – it might seem prudent and accommodating to welcome Chinese pretensions to leadership in the Middle East.

The PRC has a not-unreasonable portfolio of Middle East positions: lip service at least to Palestinian aspirations, acceptance of Israel’s right to exist and thrive, a regional security regime based on economic development instead of total war between Sunni and Shi’ite blocs, grudging accommodation of Arab Spring regimes (as long as they want to do business), an emir-friendly preference for stability over democracy, and an end to the Iran nuclear idiocy.

As to the issue of the Syrian bloodletting, the PRC has consistently promoted a political solution involving a degree of power-sharing between Assad and his opponents.

The United States, perhaps nostalgic for the 30 years of murder it has abetted in the Middle East and perversely unwilling to let go of the bloody mess, has refused to cast China for any role other than impotent bystander. 

Syria, in particular, symbolizes America’s middle-finger approach to Middle East security. Washington is perfectly happy to see the country torn to pieces, as long as it denies Iran, Russia, and China an ally in the region.

The message to China seems to be: the United States can “pivot” into Asia and threaten a security regime that has delivered unprecedented peace and prosperity, but the PRC has no role in the Middle East even though – make that because – that region is crucial to China’s energy and economic security.

This is a dynamic that invites China to muscle up militarily, project power, and strengthen its ability to control its security destiny throughout the hemisphere.

The likely response is not going to be for threatened regional actors to lean on Uncle Sam, which has more of a sporting than existential interest in keeping a lid on things in Asia. Even today, the Obama administration has yet to come up with an effective riposte to China’s playing cat and mouse with Japan – and chicken with the global economy. Sailing the Seventh Fleet around the western Pacific in search of tsunami and typhoon victims and dastardly pirates is not going to help Japan very much.

If Japan decides to seize control of its security destiny by turning its back on its pacifist constitution, staking out a position as an independent military power, and turning its full spectrum nuclear weapons capability into a declared nuclear arsenal – and South Korea nukes up in response – the famous pivot could turn into a death spiral for US credibility and influence in the region.

If this happens, 2012 will be remembered as the year it all began to unravel.

Peter Lee edits China Matters. He can be reached at: chinamatters (at) prlee. org.

This essay originally appeared on Asia Times.

Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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