Asia-Pacific

China-U.S. Rivalry Intensifies

A carnival float featuring U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao makes its way through the crowd during a parade in Cologne, Germany, on Feb. 15. (Photo Henning Kaiser/ AFP-Getty Images)

With the Dalai Lama set to meet President Obama on Thursday, more political fireworks can be expected just days after the Chinese New Year. U.S.-China relations have been stormy over recent weeks, with Beijing and Washington trading barbs over Taiwan and Google, disagreeing over policy on Iran, North Korea, and bickering over exchange rates, among a range of contentious political and economic issues.

But the officially atheist politburo in Beijing might take it as an auspicious sign that this is the Year of the Tiger. China has fared relatively well amid the global economic downturn, and with the United States bogged down with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Obama's domestic reform agenda running into sand, Beijing might want to test American mettle as the perceived gap between the two countries narrows.

Obama dodged a bullet when shunning an opportunity to meet the Dalai Lama last year. But one year into an administration that has been dogged by accusations of softness and conflicting signals in foreign policy, a meeting with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader will add to Obama's attempt at an image makeover. With his healthcare reform program stalling, he needs some public display of foreign policy backbone, just weeks after Republican Scott Brown took the Massachusetts senate seat left vacant after the death of Ted Kennedy.

Obama was the first U.S. president to visit China during his first year in office, and he spent 2009 trying to charm or accommodate or appease (depending on your viewpoint) China's Hu Jintao.

However, Obama was largely rebuffed on issues such as the value of the yuan, North Korea, human rights in China and dealing with Iran. The year culminated in the farcical Copenhagen climate summit, when Hu Jintao sent minor officials to meet the U.S. president, who then had to barge into a meeting led by Hu and involving the leaders of India, Brazil and South Africa, which the Chinese sought to stage without the Americans knowing.

The United States recently sold Taipei $6.4 billion worth of military equipment in a deal that was lined up for months in advance. Contrived verbal exchanges ensued, with the Chinese foreign minister telling the American ambassador in Beijing that the United States would be responsible for "serious repercussions" if the sale was not cancelled, and China's state-backed media laying into the United States for its perceived transgressions.

Meeting the Dalai Lama will garner Obama some kudos from across the American political spectrum, from conservatives who want to see him stand up to China, to liberals and activists who work on Tibet advocacy.

China regards the Dalai Lama as a separatist politician, and Tibet ranks alongside Taiwan as a non-negotiable issue for Beijing. A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington reacted to the Taiwan arms deal and the mooted Obama-Dalai Lama meeting as follows: "China's positions on issues like arms sales to Taiwan and Tibet have been consistent and clear," Wang Baodong said, "as these issues bear on sovereignty and territorial integrity, which are closely related to Chinese core national interests."

China upped the ante, however, by mooting sanctions for American firms doing business in China, a somewhat pointed response alluding to American attempts to prompt Beijing into backing sanctions on Iran, fresh from marking the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. China quietly sanctioned several U.S. companies for participating in such weapons sales in the past. However, it would mark a major change if China makes the list public and includes companies such as Boeing, which sells billions of dollars of airplanes in China each year.

With China riding out the global economic storm better than the United States, a newfound confidence is being exhibited in Beijing, with more strident rhetoric implying that China should challenge the United States coming out of state-funded think tanks and media. This type of talk is contrary to the posture advocated by Deng after 1989. He counseled, "Observe developments soberly, maintain our position, meet challenges calmly, hide our capacities, bide our time, remain free of ambitions and never claim leadership."—similar words to those in "The Art of War," the classic Chinese handbook on military strategy that advises that success comes not simply through brute, military force, but through oblique means, using stealth and even deception.

China recently overtook Germany to become the world's biggest exporter and may have already overtaken Japan to become the world's second largest economy. Last May, Australia's defense white paper analyzed Canberra's options in the Asia-Pacific region in the coming decades, as U.S. power declines relative to that of China. Arms spending is up in Southeast Asia, as Asean countries react to growing Chinese influence and assertiveness and wonder about the long-term U.S. commitment to the region.

China is exerting a growing influence across Africa and in Central Asia, funding infrastructure projects and providing cheap grants and loans, in return for preferential access to natural resources and running a parallel diplomatic and economic track to the Western, aid agency-driven "development" paradigm, which has not improved conditions in much of Africa.

It is not just the United States that is getting the sharp end of Chinese diplomacy. In autumn 2008, China canceled a summit with the European Union after French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with the Dalai Lama. Before that, it had denounced German Chancellor Angela Merkel over her contacts with the Tibetan spiritual leader. Smaller countries have been humiliated: China suspended ties with Denmark after its prime minister met the Dalai Lama and resumed them only after the Danish government issued a statement saying it would oppose Tibetan independence and consider Beijing's reaction before inviting him again.

A recent report by the U.S. National Intelligence Council concluded that the world is witnessing the rise of "major global players similar to the advent of a united Germany in the 19th century and a powerful United States in the early 20th century ... [and they] will transform the geopolitical landscape."

Chief among those is China. But while Chinese geo-political weight is bound to increase in coming decades, the facts show that it is a long way from challenging the United States, even though Deng-style obfuscation could mean that China is downplaying its defense spending and military capabilities.

On the other hand, various analysts have written about how Chinese officials at local levels routinely lie about economic production, giving inflated numbers to keep bosses in Beijing happy. It is hard to know the real story, and therefore it is difficult to analyze the true nature and implications of China's rise.

To assume that China will overtake the United States in 20 to 30 years, as some speculate, is to presume that the impressive Chinese economic growth of the past three decades can be maintained. Growth comes easier when coming from the relatively low base of late-70s China, reeling from the Mao era and destruction wrought by the Cultural Revolution.

China's aging and imbalanced population—the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. estimated that China will have to support 400 million elderly by 2040—means Beijing will find it hard to maintain the magic 8 percent target number for annual growth, seen as necessary to maintain social stability. With an estimated 90,000 annual "mass incidents," as Chinese security forces label protests, this cannot be taken for granted.

The depth of animosity between the two countries can be overplayed. Both need each other to ensure that the global economic crisis is overcome. But talk of the emergence of "Chimerica"—a sort of mutual dependency between the United States and China that means both sides will cherish stability over rivalry—is Panglossian. There are fundamental differences between how the two countries are governed and how they see the world.

Most notably, the idea that China can be somehow cajoled into becoming a "responsible stakeholder," as mooted by World Bank President Robert Zoellick, seems unlikely. To a greater or lesser extent, countries see the world in terms of national interest, and the same applies to the United States, even if the Obama administration has spun its "return to multilateralism."

China will work within the existing international order such as it is, to the extent that it suits China. But where this conflicts with Chinese interests, Beijing will look for an alternative. The recent Copenhagen climate summit was case in point. To some extent, China sees Western exhortations to act "responsibly" in Africa or with regard to Burma, Iran or North Korea, as cover for the West asking China to emasculate itself.

Rising powers do not usually allow themselves to be constrained by the norms and institutions set up by those they are trying to rival or even replace.
And amid the struggles in the West to cope with the global economic downturn, China now can portray its authoritarian state capitalist model as one to be emulated, irrespective of the implications for human rights and democracy in China and beyond.

Just ask Google, which has threatened to leave China due to censorship and alleged state hacking of its email service. And just ask Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident whose 11-year jail sentence was upheld last week, for his role in organizing the Charter 08 plea for democracy in China.

This article was originally published by The Irrawaddy: http://www.irrawaddy.org/.

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