In either public or private, China will not take orders from the U.S. or anyone else. Conversely, others must allow China to push them around. Recent pressure on other nations not to attend the ceremony awarding the Nobel Prize to a Chinese human rights dissident must not be tolerated. An Indian minister did well to publicly remind a visiting Chinese official that democracy prevails in India.
New global realities have inevitably altered the rules dictating U.S.-China relations since the restoration of diplomatic ties in 1979. However, China has repeatedly challenged the limits with greater self-confidence, or rather over-confidence. A paradoxical dualism emerges in Chinese rhetoric and actions. Its officials sulk in reminding others that China is still a poor nation struggling to develop. On the other hand, its eagerness to throw its weight around Asia exudes Soviet-era bravado.
Greater economic interdependence and convergence of interests have inevitably drawn together the destinies of China, the U.S. and wider international community. Globally, consumers have benefited with access to less expensive Chinese products. Yet the livelihoods of millions have disappeared causing serious dislocation and animosity toward China, particularly from developing countries, many who simultaneously benefit from Chinese investment.
China’s rapid military buildup largely targets U.S. influence. Yet China’s growth has benefited immensely from safe sea lanes provided by the U.S. Navy from the Persian Gulf to East Asia. On the other hand, China’s lack of military transparency risks greater instability and a regional arms race. It is already under way with India and beginning with Japan. Recent disclosure of a new long-range anti-ship missile and stealth fighter has further exacerbated the situation.
Furthermore, China has failed to adequately address the countless cyber-attacks emanating from its territory on western targets, both private and public sector. This continues to pose a real threat to international security and global commerce. The U.S. and its allies must vigorously insist on greater Chinese accountability.
The hope that western commercial engagement would somehow bring about political liberalization in China has largely faded away. China will not become a western-style democracy anytime soon, and perhaps never will. Any change will ultimately come from within. External influence will be minimal at most and provoke a reaction at least. China’s evolution will take place within the context of its own historical development. Collective interests will trump individual rights, particularly as determined by the Communist party which aims to preserve its power through “harmonious” development. Western pressure and demands for greater transparency and accountability in its commercial interests, particularly protection of intellectual property rights, must be unyielding. It means jobs and security.
Violations of human rights and minority rights must be condemned but expectations of what can be achieved must be kept in check. On this, be prepared for the long haul. The overlap and balance between profit and civil liberties will inevitably remain a lingering challenge, and at times prove irreconcilable.
Dealing with China ultimately requires constant vigilance. It must involve diplomatic multi-tasking at all levels. Above all, America’s ability to skillfully manage relations with other states in Asia, and beyond, will make the greatest difference in determining the road ahead.
Marco Vicenzino provides geo-political risk analysis and regular commentary for global media outlets (firstname.lastname@example.org)