Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Chinese Diplomacy Going Forward

Chinese diplomacy is likely to evolve in the future in the following ways: 1) China’s increasing political and economic confidence will encourage policy makers to engage more proactively and positively with their bi-lateral partners. Secondly, 2) China will view its relationship with the US with more complexity. Rather than just see the US as an enemy, China will look for ways to partner with the US when such an approach will advance Chinese interests.

Regarding the first point, China had traditionally stayed aloof from international relations. In the words of the Rand study, “Chinese conventional wisdom on foreign affairs of not taking risks and not taking the lead” was the overriding philosophy. (37) The Chinese regarded every nation on their borders as a threat, and the fact that they had border disputes over the years with all of these countries, points to that mind set. However, as China’s economy has improved and its diplomats have become more sure of Chinese economic power, there has been less temptation to see every country as a military threat that must be countered. Instead, China has been more willing to work with other countries, confident that the Chinese economy made the country unassailable.

An example of this change in diplomatic mindset going forward can be found in China’s relations vis a vis Taiwan. Since Chaing brought the Nationalists to Taiwan, Communist China has stridently sought to bring the “Splittists” back into
“One China.” For years, China shelled the small garrison island outposts near the mainland, and actively worked to isolate Taiwan. Often China strong-armed smaller countries with bellicose threats into breaking diplomatic relations with the Island. This policy by and large worked, but caused China to be viewed as a bully eager to beat up on a much smaller, democratic neighbor. China was able to technically isolate Taiwan from membership in some large international bodies, but ultimately could not keep Taiwan out of the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade, and even had to accept simultaneous entry with Taiwan, as the rest of the world recognized Taiwan’s economic clout.

China was also forced to accept a humiliating stand-down in the light of belligerent rhetoric directed to Taiwan during President Clinton’s tenure. China considered every utterance of Taiwan’s President Lee to be a cause for military action. In 1996, China put their missiles, arrayed across the Taiwan Strait, on high alert in an attempt to intimidate Taiwan. Instead, even a United States President as well disposed towards China as Bill Clinton was forced to respond to such heavy-handed intimidation by sending a couple of US aircraft carrier task forces to the waters off Taiwan.

China learned from both these incidents that it is easier to attract flies with honey than with vinegar. China has become much less overtly threatening and is finding that other countries are willing to move towards them in recognition of the enormous economic power that China represents. China has essentially become the world’s manufacturer. Other countries have become increasingly reliant on low cost Chinese goods to prop up domestic economies. These other, economically dependent countries are loath to do anything to irritate China, even if some of their domestic political constituencies are dissatisfied with Chinese policies. A smiling China makes it much harder to drum up boycotts and calls for disengagement than if China is rattling sabers on every frontier. The recent success of the summer Olympic games illustrates this point. China’s essential nature as a police state was well in evidence with an overweening police presence and official restrictions on internet access. Yet the spectacle of a well run, lavish Olympics made for smiling tourists and enhanced Chinese power in the world.

Chinese relations with Taiwan have changed as well. Some of the change is in the fact that Taiwan has a much more pro-China government now than in the last decade or so. However, a large part of the change is the fact that China realizes that if they are a hospitable location in which to do business, pragmatic Taiwanese businessmen will look to work with China, and thereby, more closely intertwine the two economies. To the extent that these relations become seamless and pervasive, the less compelling the argument that China and Taiwan must remain separate. At some point, Taiwanese domestic opinion may well come around to the view that they really are part of China, so they might as well make the relationship formal. China will have effected the dream of Mao in bringing back the “Splittists,” without a shot needing to be fired. And this will all be done because of Chinese diplomats’ confidence in the inherent power of China, power that need never be overtly wielded but is nonetheless felt.

Secondly, China will begin to see the US not just as a competitor, but also as a partner in some respects. China will continue to build its military to counter what it sees as a large US lead in military strength. This is a prudent course given size of the Chinese economy. China may feel an increasing confidence in foreign affairs as noted above, but when encountering big powers, economics alone are not sufficient. Yet that being said, China need not see every encounter with the US as a rivalry. There are locations and arenas where China can gain much by partnering with the US. As these opportunities present themselves, Chinese diplomats would do will to recognize them. The US behavior of late has shown that if China is not outwardly aggressive, the US is not particularly interested in confrontation. That trend will become more apparent with a change in US leadership. Chinese diplomacy should capitalize on this opportunity to partner with the US in the Middle East and Africa.

China has been content for the US to tangle with radical Muslim terrorists since the perception has been that as long as the US is distracted by the fights in Afghanistan and Iraq and with homeland security concerns, there was less time to focus on differences with China. However, China has its own domestic Muslim terrorists to deal with in the far West. A more confident China could see that dealing with the problem of Muslim radicalism is not just one in which the US is a target, but one in which China could be a target as well. China will find that it is better to work with the US to confront the enemy of its domestic enemies while their domestic enemy is yet weak, rather than to let it grow and link up with the same radicals fighting the US.

China is also becoming involved with many countries in Africa, in the search for additional economic resources. These same countries are beset by radicalism, poor governance, frightening poverty and disease. All these pathologies have a chance to spread unless those countries with an interest in stopping the spread, work in concert. China has been hands off Africa, content to exploit resources and stay out of domestic problems. However, as China grows in self assurance, it will find that it can work with the US in areas of Africa and on causes that strengthen the foreign policy of both countries with out fear that one country will gain advantage over the other.

China’s increasing confidence born of economic power and from the lessons learned in the recent past will make it more proactive in the diplomatic sphere and more likely to partner with the US, going forward.