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Washington’s sway in Asia is challenged by China

March 18, 2005

HEADLINE: Beijing’s growing influence alarms some in the US although Japan is emerging as an unexpectedly assertive ally. assess the region’s changing diplomatic landscape ahead of Condoleezza Rice’s visit


The Asia that Condoleezza Rice is surveying this week on her first trip to the region as USsecretary of state is changing so quickly that judgments on regional politics risk being outdated as soon as they are made. But Asian and US observers can agree on two things without fear of contradiction: Chinese power is on the rise, and the US, although the world’s only superpower, is in danger of losing its grip as the unchallenged arbiter of Asian security.

Nearly four years ago, the overthrow of the Islamist Taliban regime in Afghanistan gave the US a bridgehead in previously hostile territory in central Asia. But since then President George W. Bush has paid the diplomatic price in Asia for focusing almost exclusively on Iraq and the Middle East.

For those who favour a strong US presence in Asia and around the world, it was unlucky that the “war on terror” coincided with China’s re-emergence as a regional and perhaps an international power. Beijing, its influence enhanced by a fast-growing economy that has fuelled an export-led recovery across Asia, has not hesitated to fill the vacuum left by US inattention.

China has made friends in places as far apart as south-east Asia, India, Latin America and Africa, often in the quest for oil and other natural resources to fuel the Chinese industrial revolution. “China has been very successful in terms of extending its influence,” says Bates Gill, a China analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “China has smartly turned to where its real strengths currently lie, which are not in military power but in diplomacy – you could even say a kind of ‘soft power’.”

The Bush administration – belatedly, say some of its critics – has now begun to respond, after three years of leaving China to its own devices in exchange for Beijing’s acquiescence in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. At the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency and in Congress there is renewed talk of China as a threat and a strategic competitor, just as there was in the campaign leading up to Mr Bush’s first election victory in 2000.

“There is a simmering anxiety, a resentful understanding or realisation that the US – due to its own military over-reach, its excesses – has been taken advantage of by China,” says Minxin Pei, a China expert at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The view at the US State Department, however, is much more sanguine than at the Pentagon. Instead of focusing on China’s military modernisation, officials emphasise the country’s transformation from hardline communist state into a successful and broadly capitalist economy over the past 25 years. “We regard China as a co-operative player and often a partner,” says a senior State Department official in Washington, describing “engagement” as the watchword of the US approach to China.

In any case, the US is obliged to deal with China because of its central role in the two most pressing security problems in east Asia: Taiwan, which is protected by the US but threatened by Beijing with forcible reintegration into the People’s Republic; and North Korea, which has been developing nuclear weapons. One of the understandings at the heart of the US-China relationship today is that Washington’s job is to curb Taiwanese moves towards independence, while the task of Beijing is to keep North Korea at the negotiating table.

It is in Congress, not the Bush administration, that US anti-China sentiment is concentrated. Congress brings together trade protectionists, pro-Taiwan “hawks” and defenders of human rights.

Yet even in the US government, the policy of engagement with China is under strain. The US has criticised China’s decision to adopt an “anti- secession” law authorising the use of force against Taiwan, and US officials say China is not doing enough to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions or to persuade it to resume stalled disarmament talks. The US has also noticed with alarm that China is exercising its economic and diplomatic muscle in the wider world – beyond its traditional sphere of influence in Asia.

China is seen by the US as the main hindrance to passing a UN Security Council resolution that would put pressure on Sudan to halt the mass killings and destruction of villages in its western region of Darfur. Sudan supplies about 10 per cent of China’s oil imports and has received large arms shipments in return. Ed Royce, a Californian Republican in the House of Representatives, visited Darfur last month and wants the Bush administration to confront China openly. “We should force a vote and force Russia and China to use their veto, show their cards, by vetoing oil sanctions.”

China’s energy-driven relationship with Iran – a Chinese state oil company recently struck a Dollars 70bn deal to buy oil and gas over three decades – is also complicating joint EU-US efforts to put pressure on the Islamic government to give up parts of its nuclear programme. China would almost certainly block serious sanctions against Iran in the UN.

A commentary in the neoconservative Weekly Standard this week reflected the angst of the US right: “China is beginning to string together a necklace of client states in the oil-rich Middle East – Iran and Sudan, to name two – and even into the Americas, cosying up to Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez.”

In Asia and the Pacific, the US remains the dominant military power, as it has been since the defeat of Japan in the second world war. However, China’s growing economic strength and its integration into the Asian and global economies mean that the US does not enjoy untrammelled influence. The US, for example, is finding it hard to persuade allies such as South Korea – now heavily dependent on trade with China – to take a tough line with Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader.

“China is using its economic power in the region,” says a diplomat involved in trying to solve the North Korean nuclear crisis. “The US is trying to maintain its traditional role, and others – while recognising that role – are not prepared to accept the degree of US dominance they had before.”

Given the interdependence between the US and Chinese economies, any US attempts to limit China’s economic rise are likely to be sporadic at best, and probably limited to knee-jerk protectionist moves in Congress that would be opposed by US multinationals with investments in Chinese manufacturing.

As in diplomacy, there is an implicit bargain in US-China economic relations: the US tolerates China’s surging exports to the US and the resulting bilateral trade surplus for China, but China recycles its new wealth by helping to finance the US budget deficit. China has more than Dollars 600bn of foreign reserves, much of it in US Treasury bills. Asked if the US is held hostage by its financial situation, Tom Lantos, the senior Democrat on the House of Representatives’ international relations committee, replies: “Absolutely.”

On the military and diplomatic front, the US has more room for manoeuvre. For a start, US officials say, Chinese diplomacy is not nearly as effective as Beijing’s admirers believe. China’s forceful approach to territorial claims in the South China Sea, its nationalistic view of Asian history, its clumsy handling of Taiwan and the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, and its low profile in the aid effort for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunamis in December have not endeared China to its nervous neighbours.

“This idea that the Chinese have been unerringly successful in scoring diplomatic coups around the region – I think that’s grossly overblown,” says the State Department official.

Japan, meanwhile, is emerging under Junichiro Koizumi, the prime minister and friend of Mr Bush, as an unexpectedly assertive Asian ally of the US and rival to China. “Japan used to be very shy of using the words ‘national interest’,” says Kenzo Oshima, Japanese ambassador to the United Nations. “That inhibition has gone.”

The increasing respectability of nationalism in Japanese politics – some of the likely successors to Mr Koizumi next year are more nationalistic than he is – could significantly affect the balance of power in east Asia. Japan is the world’s second largest economy and, like the US, it has a mutually dependent relationship with China, but it also has powerful armed forces and is emerging gradually, with US support, from 60 years of pacifism imposed by its post-war constitution.

Washington, which is also strengthening its ties with other Asia-Pacific powers, such as India and Australia, is delighted at the turn of events in Japan. But China, which had to apologise after one of its nuclear-powered submarines was detected in Japanese territorial waters near Taiwan in November, is watching warily. Beijing is concerned that the US and Japan will team up to contain Chinese power.

“If they are doing it, we will be worried,” says a senior Chinese official, arguing that the US-Japan alliance was understandable during the cold war but makes no sense today. “We believe the alliance is outdated – but what we see is that it is being strengthened.”

For US conservatives, almost any policy that restricts Chinese power is to be recommended even if it means accepting the unsavoury side of Japanese nationalism. American rightwingers say Washington’s patchwork of bilateral alliances and its ad hoc approach to Asian crises compare unfavourably with Beijing’s recent diplomacy at multilateral Asian meetings and, in the words of the Weekly Standard, its patient strategy of “unravelling the Pax Americana”.

John Tkacik, an Asia analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, goes so far as to say that resource-poor modern China is as much of a threat to peace as pre-war Japan. “China is right now in the same position that Japan was in the late 1920s and early 1930s,” he says. “It’s been taken over by a group of nationalistic militarists.” The aim of the Chinese Communist party, he observes, is not to implement communist ideology but to increase “the comprehensive strength of the nation”.

Despite concerns over Beijing’s threats against Taiwan and its reluctance to rein in North Korea, this alarmist view of China’s growing power is not widely shared at Ms Rice’s State Department, where officials point to the beneficial effects of globalisation and the importance of international trade to Chinese prosperity.

Even in the US Congress, where legislators are often fiercely critical of China, some are optimistic about the future of US relations with China and the rest of Asia. The 77-year-old Mr Lantos, detained in a forced labour camp at the age of 16 when his native Hungary was occupied by Nazi Germany, warns against the dangers of arming China and threatens European weapons exporters with dire reprisals if they do so. But he does not see China as a threat to the US or to world peace.

“It’s very important to separate the very positive secular trend from the ups and downs of day-to-day diplomacy,” he says. “We are at a moment in history when all the great entities – Europe, the US, India, China, Japan – are basically on the same side, and on the other side are the ‘rogue states’ and the global terrorist movement. And that’s why I’m the world’s calmest human being, because there’s no doubt in my mind what the end of this movie will be.” The question is whether China, Japan and the US under Mr Bush share his vision of how the plot should unfold.

The slow-burning North Korean nuclear crisis is probably the best contemporary illustration of J.K. Galbraith’s famous advice to President John F.Kennedy that politics is not the art of the possible but of choosing between “the disastrous and the unpalatable”.

All the options available to President George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, fall into one of those two categories. When Ms Rice arrives in Seoul tomorrow North Korea’s nuclear weapons programmes will be at the top of her agenda, but no solution palatable to Washington is in sight.

Since Pyongyang declared on February 10 that it had made nuclear weapons and was withdrawing from the six-nation talks aimed at resolving the issue, frenzied diplomatic meetings have taken place across north-east Asia and in Washington. Yet nothing substantial has changed. North Korea insists it will not deal with a “hostile” US. The US is refusing to negotiate bilaterally with North Korea, a country described by Ms Rice as an “outpost of tyranny”. The six-party talks – involving the two Koreas, the US, China, Japan and Russia – have broken down. No meeting has been held since last June and even China, the host for the talks, admitted yesterday that there was a stalemate.

“Neither side will offer any concessions and without a shift in the US’s position or in North Korea’s position, I can’t see a resumption of the talks,” says Park Young-ho, a North Korea specialist at the South’s Korea Institute for National Unification.

A North Korean businessman with close ties to Kim Jong-il’s regime says Washington needs to allow North Korea a way to soften its position while retaining its pride. “We have a proverb: when you club a wild dog you have to leave it a way to get out, otherwise the dog will bounce back and bite you,” he says.

North Korea still believed in talks but would prefer bilateral discussions with Washington, he says. “The six-party talks route was not our choice but we accepted it. If we have direct talks the problems can be solved more easily, but Big Brother America does not want that.”

The US, however, is weary of North Korean prevarication and demands for up-front concessions. Washington says it has no plans to attack North Korea but argues that the spread of nuclear weapons in the region is as much of a concern for north-east Asian nations as for the US.

Until recently, all parties to the talks were content to see the negotiations drag on. The US has been distracted by the conflict in Iraq, while China sees no benefit in a confrontation between Washington and Pyongyang. “They (the Chinese) see these talks as a way of keeping the US tied down diplomatically so it doesn’t make trouble militarily,” says Selig Harrison, head of the Asia programme at the Centre for International Policy.

However, North Korea’s declaration on February 10 and subsequent defiant statements have increased the pressure for a solution and helped to poison relations between the US and its partners in China and South Korea.

Fearing regional instability, China and South Korea have both been urging the US to take a more “flexible” and “creative” approach. But the US has placed the onus of bringing North Korea back to the table on China, which, as Pyongyang’s closest ideological ally and biggest aid donor, has the most leverage over Mr Kim’s regime.

“The Chinese are 100 per cent supportive of North Korea,” complains John Tkacik of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank in Washington. “North Korea has said they are walking away from the six-party talks five separate times, and each time, like James Brown at the Apollo, they are persuaded to come back for an encore.”

Analysts across the US political spectrum agree that Ms Rice is in a weak position because the US has no clear policy on North Korea. “There were conservatives who thought they could deal with Iraq, and then move on to North Korea. But they didn’t deal with Iraq as expeditiously as they would like,” says a western negotiator.

Washington’s remaining hope is that Mr Kim’s regime will collapse from within and provide the US with a ready-made solution, but scant evidence to support such a scenario has trickled out of Pyongyang. “The Bush administration’s approach is all or nothing. Since complete disarmament is unrealistic, what we have is nothing,” says Gary Samore, a non-proliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London who served in the Clinton administration. “People have been betting on the collapse of the North Korean regime for 15 years now, and it hasn’t happened.”


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