China-U.S. relationship is complicated

By Dale R. Herspring

As frustrating as China can be, we need it. It has become a giant not only in Asia, but around the world.

In considering the role China plays, we should look at its behavior from two perspectives. First, the downside. China is quickly becoming a military giant. It is still behind the United States, but if we continue to cut our armed forces while pushing many aspects of our security into chaos, China will catch up much more quickly.

There is no doubt it intends to surpass us. Reports of Chinese cyber-warfare illustrate Chin’s determination to match us. China can avoid the time-consuming process of developing generations of weapons and jump to the front if they can copy our high-tech systems. 

Our national debt, which the Obama administration is doing to little to address, is another concern. China owns a number of industrial organizations in this country and seeks more. China is also active economically throughout the world. Beijing knows that oil and gas are the keys to economic development and is purchasing oil rights worldwide.

The Chinese have been especially active in Africa and would be more than happy to sign a contract with Canada for the oil from its Alberta tar sands. Much will depend on Obama’s decision on the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Canada is going to sell its oil, and if it goes to the Chinese, who have poor air quality standards, it would add vastly more pollution to the world than would such fuel in the United States. 

China is also a concern because of its appetite for territory, including territory that belong to others but that the Chinese believe historically is theirs. Tensions over territory are increasing between China and Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.  This is a major reason the United States has adopted an “Asia first” strategy. We are shifting a majority of our naval assets to the Pacific. Indeed, were it not for events in the Middle East, more of our fleet would be cruising in and around the Pacific command’s home base in Hawaii.

As for positive aspects of the relationship, let me note that while we might consider certain of China’s actions positive, the Chinese are not taking these actions to be nice. Whatever they do they are doing because they believe it to be in their national interest. We are lucky when an action fits both countries’ national interests.

I have in mind China’s attitude toward North Korea. When it comes to its “comradely” neighbor, Beijing is caught between a rock and a hard place. China considers the continued existence of the regime in Pyong-yang critical.

Beijing knows how poor North Korea is and that its population exists on the edge of starvation. China considers North Korea’s leaders both dangerous and incompetent. North Korea is often doing something to upset the region and on occasion has come close to involving China in a regional conflict.

China worries that if a conflict should take place, it would be inundated by fleeing North Koreans. Furthermore, if the North’s regime fell, it would probably be replaced by one from the South — and that would mean having Americans on China’s border.

China is aware of the North’s missile maneuvers and has played hardball with Pyong-yang. Beijing has made it clear to the North that it should stop playing dangerous games, but the North has continued to play a game of chicken with the United States and South Korea.

North-South relations have continued to worsen. The North recently announced it was pul-ling out of the armistice signed decades ago and then put pressure on the joint industrial site. This was more than an industrial zone; it was a symbol of cooperation between the two Koreas.

On May 25, a high-level North Korean official visited Beijing and brought a letter from Kim Jong Un to Chinese President Xi Jinping. We do not know the letter’s contents, but, the reception China gave the North Korean envoy was less than cordial. China’s state news service said, “China has a very clear position: that all the concerned parties should keep to the goal of denuclearization, safeguarding peace and stability on the peninsula and resolving disputes through dialogue and consultation.”

That was the diplomatic way of taking the North to the woodshed by publicly coming down on the side of the United States, Japan, Russia and South Korea.

International politics sometimes makes for strange partnerships.   

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at KSU and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.

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