North Korea

Reconcilable differences

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 February, 2011, 12:00am


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After a year of acrimony and deterioration, US-China relations seem to have stabilised. To be sure, the summit between presidents Hu Jintao and Barack Obama in Washington in late January was widely lauded as a success. In particular, China's expressed concerns about North Korea's uranium enrichment programme were welcomed by the US as a sign that Beijing is now getting serious about restraining Pyongyang's aggressive and dangerous behaviour.

On the economic track, things are looking up as well. Commercial contracts worth US$45 billion signed or announced during Hu's visit helped. More importantly, with the renminbi steadily appreciating in real terms, the political pressure on the Obama administration and the Chinese government is abating.

However, these encouraging developments have not changed the underlying dynamics that have greatly increased mutual distrust and caused a steady deterioration of relations in recent years. China cannot afford to be complacent.

While it requires efforts by both sides to further stabilise US-China ties, Beijing needs to do more to show that it has learned the lessons from its diplomatic missteps last year and that it is deeply committed to maintaining a constructive relationship with Washington.

Perhaps the most critical task in the immediate future for China in this regard is to fulfil the commitments Hu made while in Washington. Pressuring the reckless Pyongyang regime to roll back its uranium enrichment programme will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. But China has no choice but to try.

It can no longer credibly claim an inability to make North Korea change its aggressive behaviour, since in recent months Chinese pressure on Pyongyang seems to have been remarkably effective in making the Kim Jong-il regime behave better.

Chinese leaders need to understand that it is in their own interest to rein in Pyongyang on the nuclear front. A key cause of China's troubles with the United States, Japan and South Korea last year was Beijing's relative tolerance of Pyongyang's misbehaviour. More importantly, North Korean escalation in expanding its nuclear arsenal will elicit a firm US response that will certainly cause fresh Sino-American friction.

Economically, dismantling protectionist measures to make China's fast-growing market more accessible to foreign companies is another test. Promising not to force foreign companies to transfer technology to Chinese firms if they want to get government contracts is an excellent start. But as veteran watchers of China all know, the devil is in the implementation. Given the power wielded by the bureaucracy and local governments, most of them foes of open competition, the odds are high that Beijing will have to work extra hard to ensure that its commitments to Washington are not just pleasant rhetoric.

In fact, winning back the goodwill and support of American corporations is in China's self-interest. Without the lobbying of the powerful business community, China probably would not have got into the World Trade Organisation, and its ties with the US would have been in far worse shape. But in recent years, as China grows stronger economically, Chinese leaders have alienated their friends in the American corporate world with arrogance, outright protectionist measures and poor protection of intellectual property rights. It is time to make amends.

In addition to action designed to shore up its ties with America, China should also actively repair the damage its recent assertiveness has done to relations with its Asian neighbours. Chinese leaders often operate under the mistaken assumption that closer ties with the US give them a stronger hand in dealing with their neighbours.

In truth, the logic is in the opposite. Better neighbourly ties allow China to enjoy stable relations with the US because, when faced with Chinese pressure, China's neighbours naturally turn to Washington for help. As a strategic balancer, the US has no choice but to come to the aid of China's neighbours, thus directly confronting China.

So Beijing urgently needs to take concrete steps to defuse the tensions with its key neighbours, principally Japan, India, South Korea and Vietnam. Ties with Seoul could conceivably improve if China acts more constructively in constraining North Korea. As for the other three countries, Beijing's task is much harder because China has territorial disputes with all of them. To make matters worse, they all view China's rise with trepidation.

However difficult the reconciliation process may be, the alternative scenario is simply too dreadful to contemplate. It is hard to imagine that sensible Chinese leaders are prepared to live with fearful and distrustful neighbours. So Chinese leaders may have to make some painful and politically difficult concessions and exercise extraordinary strategic restraint to put China's ties with its neighbours, especially Japan and India, on a solid footing.

Only by taking these measures can China regain its regional standing and start altering the underlying, and dangerous, dynamics that have periodically brought Beijing and Washington to the brink of confrontation in the past.

Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and an adjunct senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace