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  • Dec 21, 2014
  • Updated: 10:10pm
CommentInsight & Opinion

China faces the new realities of US interference in its own backyard

Deng Yuwen and Jonathan Sullivan say Beijing's reaction will shape how conflict may be resolved

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 June, 2014, 3:25am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 June, 2014, 5:49am

Barack Obama used his recent Westpoint military academy address to outline his foreign policy for the remaining term of his presidency and set out the principles for American global leadership in the longer term. He didn't say much about China directly - invoking the seriousness of cyberattacks, but not naming China as a major perpetrator. He mentioned the South China Sea, but only to say that the US supports Southeast Asian nations in their attempts to negotiate disputes according to international law.

Despite this apparently low-key approach to China, analysts in Beijing found yet more cause for concern in the speech, the latest in a series of ill tidings. First, the US bottom line is that it intends to maintain its position as the great global power, "the one indispensable nation", for the remainder of the 21st century.

Second, while military power remains the backbone of US leadership, Washington will also cooperate with its allies to attain its strategic goals.

Third, the US will use any means within law to force China to respect international norms of access in the South China Sea, with the implication that if, by failing to do so, China threatens US allies, Washington would use force to teach Beijing a lesson. At last, Uncle Sam has revealed his mean streak.

Analysts in Beijing see storm clouds gathering over Sino-US relations. Last summer, President Xi Jinping put the idea of a new model of great power relations to Obama as a potential modus vivendi. In the long term, Beijing wants Washington to accept that East Asia is China's special sphere of influence and to refrain from intervening against China's interests in its own backyard. Beijing argues that this is the extent of what it wants in global affairs: American hegemony is tolerable as long as the US respects China's position in Asia.

China wants the same degree of stability in bilateral relations with the US as it has been able to establish with Russia. But achieving this will require greater US accommodation of Chinese foreign policy behaviour in support of its core interests, and removing support from American allies who actively go against them. These are formidable obstacles.

In fact, where China hoped the US would leverage its influence over its allies to support China's claims, it has done the opposite, strengthening alliances with Japan and the Philippines. The idea that the US actively opposes Beijing's legitimate pursuit of security and sovereignty interests in surrounding maritime areas is a source of enormous frustration.

Many Chinese analysts interpreted Obama's recent Asia trip to mean that Washington's former policy of "engagement plus containment" has reverted to simple containment and that the US still has the stomach for a certain degree of conflict with China in the Asia-Pacific region.

When Obama championed the notion of "rebalancing", Beijing interpreted it to mean balancing Chinese power. Yet, as the talk of rebalancing exceeded discernible action, some Chinese analysts began to doubt Obama's commitment.

When Russian forces rolled into Ukraine, they breathed a collective sigh of relief, believing Europe would once again become a point of strategic emphasis. Now they realise they were wrong.

In the weeks leading up to Obama's Asia tour, a series of barbs were directed at several of China's more sensitive issues. Obama openly supported Japan on the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute, while Vice-President Joe Biden met veteran figures of the Hong Kong democracy movement at the White House. Statements were also released pressing Beijing on North Korea and territorial disputes with the Philippines.

All of this tells Beijing the US is very clear about which nation represents the greatest long-term threat to US hegemony. The bottom line is that unless Beijing unconditionally submits to American dominance, there is no way the US will allow China to rise without impediment. Instead of the imagined new type of great power relations, Beijing sees an old-fashioned American determination to interfere in its Asian affairs.

In practice, there are many sticks with which the US can beat China, should it choose to do so. But the issues of Hong Kong, Taiwan, North Korea and territorial disputes in the region are irritants relative to what strategists in Beijing perceive as the aces in the American hand.

First is the possibility of exploiting the conflicts and contradictions in Chinese society, combined with the "weapon" of democracy, to bring about the fall of the Communist Party. Second, using US dominance in global trade to hinder further development of the Chinese economy.

Recent developments suggest China's strategic environment in the Asia-Pacific is about to be constrained. Whether these conditions ultimately lead to conflict will depend on how China reacts, and dealing with Washington's newly enhanced "containment" tactics will be a strong test of the wisdom of Chinese leaders.

Deng Yuwen is a Beijing-based political analyst. Jonathan Sullivan is associate professor and deputy director of the China Policy Institute


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This article is now closed to comments

P Blair
Wherever the US interferes the result is massive death and destruction. Afghanistan is basically destroyed. Iraq is in civil war. Syria is in civil war. Libya is in civil war. Most of these societies are permanently damaged or destroyed. So the decade long Chinese military expansion was a very very wise move on the part of China regardless of US bitching over it.
M Miyagi
The sinister nature of US foreign policy and interference was what caused 911. The US is a criminal country.
The authors give the US too much credit, and do so in a seemingly backhanded way of excusing Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea region. This could be framed in the opposite way, whereby Chinese aggression has enabled US involvement.
US interaction with Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines is nothing new. Yes, the US said it would refocus its attention to Asia. But that alone would not have altered the regional status quo. Just because the US shows added interest doesn't mean SE Asian nations would reciprocate.
But enter China, with increased talk of dashed lines on an old map, fishing fleets and coast guard vessels run amok, and now plunking down an oil rig in disputed waters. All of a sudden, SE Asian states have reasons to be irked by China, and they already have in waiting a partner willing to dance. Is it any surprise that they would now accept the invitation?
What does the Chinese side expect? Do they think the US has the clout to suggest/insist that all of these SE Asian states simply cede their territorial claims? China resents US influence, yet somehow gives the US credit for much more influence than it actually has, or can be reasonably expected to have.
The way to minimize US influence is to not give neighbouring SE Asian nations any reason to access and permit it. China has done the exact opposite. If China feels constrained as a result, this is all due to her own actions. I do wonder if this is the intended outcome all along.
So true. These places were all paradises on earth until U.S. interference or, in the case of Syria, non-interference.
Daniel Lee
The US comes to Asia to sow conflicts and discords. That's the US agenda everywhere. The more wars the more profits for the US.
"bring about the fall of the Communist Party" Really? What benefits will the US get?
I firmly believe the US has to do everything to keep China a one party rule.
If CCP falls, it will cause a world economic depression and the US will be the first victim (unfortunately bringing HK down with it).
What is holding back China today is corruption & lack of innovation. A fully democratic China will unleash its full economic potential and will replace the US as the world's #1 economic power.
Think the US will want to see that?
Hmmm, so "American hegemony is tolerable as long as the US respects China's position in Asia." Wow! What an assertion.
Let's go over the list where China has been helpful to the U.S.: Decapitating the regime in North Korea? Being helpful with Syria where the government gasses it own people? Iraq? Iran? Crimea? Ukraine? Venezuela? Cuba?
"Win-win" in Chinese apparently means I get everything of what I want with your assistance or acquiescence, no matter how outrageous, and that you get nothing of what you want while I pull every lever I can to make your progress as slow and expensive as possible.
In the long run, China isn't likely to get what it wants. Chinese will be hated in North Korea for propping up the Kim dynasty, once the place gets free of them; in Iran, once the dictatorship of the ayatollahs is over; in Syria once the Assads are gone; in Venezuela, once the country is rid of the Chavistas; in the Ukraine, now, both for demanding money and siding with Putin, in Cuba once the dictatorship is gone.
Looks like Miyag and Daniel missed my previous lesson on tu quoque logical fallacies. And they seem to lack any capacity whatsoever for Chinese introspection. It seems their re-education will be a long process indeed.
Reply to lamim38 -- The essence of the matter is that PRC is not in the business of offering "help" to rivals. For decades, PRC has covertly aided the development of the nuclear weapons and missiles of both North Korea and Iran. From PRC's perspective the aim was always to counter USA's global power. PRC wants to drive USA away from Asia. In the same way, PRC favors any Mideast development that weakens USA power there. The deeper political truth is that the P5+1 talks about Iran's race to nuclear weapons are not really about preventing Iran from having nuclear-weapons capacity or from actually getting a nuclear weapon. Rather, the real purpose of the P5+1 talks is negotiating USA withdrawal from the Mideast. This withdrawal is something keenly desired by Iran, Russia, PRC and also by President Obama himself! He is certainly the best USA president that PRC could ever expect to have. President Obama welcomes and enthusiastically embraces USA decline. From his youth, left-liberal internationalist Barack Obama has seen the USA as an international bully. Thus, his "pivot to Asia" is an empty slogan designed to cover withdrawal from the Mideast. Under President Obama, most of what USA expresses about foreign policy is aimed at deceiving the American public rather than at actually influencing the conduct of foreign governments. For example, USA lawmakers in Washington have pointed out that there is next to nothing in USA defense spending that points to any real USA "pivot to Asia."
be careful about this "fully democratic China", because Chinese society may not be ready for it.



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