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CHINA/US: Rivals, Partners in Asia

Analysis by John Feffer

WASHINGTON, Dec 16 2008 (IPS) - With the Six Party Talks to denuclearise North Korea once again on the ropes and the world reeling from a deepening financial crisis, the United States is looking to China for help.

The Pentagon still views China as a rising and potentially threatening military power. But the State Department has been relying on China’s mediating skills in dealing with North Korea, and the Treasury Department dearly hopes that China will continue to buy U.S. bonds and follow through on its own economic stimulus package.

China has a similarly bifocal view of the U.S., particularly when it comes to the issue of regional security in Asia. “My country’s view of the United States has been very divided,” reported Zhu Feng, the deputy director of the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Peking University, at a seminar in Washington, DC on Monday, sponsored by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.

“We have hawks, Chinese neoconservatives, who always argue that the United States is imperialistic. And we also have moderates that believe that the United States is always China’s partner,’’ Zhu explained.

The mainstream view within China, Zhu continued, has focused on the three roles the U.S. plays in the region. It stabilises through its military presence and it balances, particularly in maintaining the peace across the Taiwan Strait, he said.

And it also intimidates. “Potential preemption from the United States as the dominant power vis a vis us as a great potential power is always a very scary scenario for us,” Zhu observed.

China’s rise in international affairs, Zhu noted, has been peaceful. Before 1979, “we exported revolution and were willing to fight anyone… But in the 30 years since, China has not been involved in a single war”.

Nevertheless, Beijing has presided over a large-scale military modernisation over the last decade.

According to Zhu, however, there is no contradiction in the modernisation of the military. “We have a strong sense of national pride. We believe that we are a global power. No great power just sits around and waits with out-of-date military equipment.”

Because China and the U.S. are both Pacific powers, it is not surprising that their sometimes schizophrenic views of each other are thrown into sharp relief around the question of regional security.

The Six Party Talks have brought together the U.S., China, the two Koreas, Japan, and Russia to negotiate the end of North Korea’s nuclear programme and its integration into the international community.

There have been several calls to institutionalise these talks into a regional security framework, and a working group within the talks focuses specifically on such a security architecture for the region. But whether this will be China-centred, U.S.-centred, or have a more equitable structure remains an open question.

“China always is a proactive participant in regional security cooperation. It’s the only way for us to realize our security and prosperity,” Zhu argued.

Even though the U.S. is not a member of certain regional institutions – such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or the East Asian Summit – Zhu maintained that China sees U.S. participation in regional security as critical. “I don’t think there are any Chinese who think of any future regional security framework without U.S. participation,” he said. “I don’t think that China has any ambition to keep the United States out.”

Mitchell Reiss, diplomat-in-residence at the College of William and Mary, disagreed. “I’m skeptical that China wants to institutionalise U.S. cooperation in this manner,” he said.

Reiss recalled that during his term as director of the Office of Policy Planning in the State Department, several years ago, China refused to participate in a policy exercise involving the Six Party Talks participants.

”Beijing also worked hard to keep us out of the East Asia Summit,” Reiss added. “I don’t blame China for behaving in this manner. It was only 200 years ago that the United States adopted the Monroe Doctrine toward our European friends to prevent them from interfering in our sphere of influence in Latin America. China can be forgiven for adopting a similar doctrine in China’s sphere of influence.”

The question for Michael Mastanduno, professor of government at Dartmouth College, was one of time horizon. In the short term, economic interdependence will drive China and the U.S. to find common interests.

Over the long term, as China grows in power, will it find acceptable a very prominent U.S. role in the region? “It’s fair to say that the answer is no,’’ says Mastanduno.

‘’And this,” he said, ”is based on America’s own experience. When America proclaimed the Monroe Doctrine, it couldn’t enforce it. When it could, in 1898, it did whatever it could to throw the Europeans out. As China gets more powerful, and China has great power aspirations, it is not unreasonable to believe that some version of the Monroe Doctrine will inform its policy.”

This tension between short-term cooperation and long-term conflict can already be discerned in the current U.S.-China relationship. Zhu Feng praised the Bush administration for strengthening U.S.-China relations, restraining Taiwanese ambitions for independence, and improving cooperation with India.

At the same time, however, Zhu warned of a “growing contradiction.” He asked: “How should we look at our commercial partnership while the United States is strategically alienating China with its trilateral strategic dialogue with Japan and Australia or its proposal for a league of democracies?”

Mastanduno recommended that the U.S. maintain its hedging strategy of economic cooperation and military preparedness. “We don’t have a very clear containment option,” he observed. “And we’ll be pretty much doing it alone since no coalition would form around it. In strictly realist terms, the United States has a lot of time. This is not Britain and Germany in the late 19th century.’’

Mastanduno also pointed to a larger gap between the U.S. and China. ‘’There is time to see if the great liberal experiment – using economic cooperation to transform a rising power into a more accommodating one – will work. If it doesn’t work, we’ll probably have time to switch strategies.”

Looking ahead to the Obama administration, Reiss said that the “first step is to recognise the centrality of the relationship. I can’t think of a more important relationship in this century than the U.S.-China relationship. Given what has happened in the financial markets, the natural starting point is economics”.

‘’China’s policy can certainly ameliorate or exacerbate the pain we feel here in the United States or globally – whether they stimulate their economy, continue to buy U.S. treasury notes, and so on,’’ Reiss said. ‘’Also, you can’t solve the climate change issue without buy-in from China.’’

Zhu Feng agreed. “China’s participation in the bailout is a vivid reflection of our growing interdependence. If the United States is down, China will be down too.” For him, joint participation in regional security discussions could accentuate the positive in the bilateral relationship.

“Strategically, it’s not easy to dissolve the concerns of both countries,” he concluded. “We need a way to reduce antagonism and bump up the energy to a new level – through regional security cooperation.”


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