Confronting China's Snarl

For years, foreign policy optimists have predicted that China's rise to superpower status would be peaceful and responsible. But recent Chinese offensives, both domestic and foreign, make this vision look increasingly naive. The Obama administration must decide whether to respond vigorously to Beijing's hostility or allow its aggressiveness to go unchecked.

China, for example, continues to modernize and expand its nuclear-capable delivery systems, even as President Obama urges Senate ratification of a treaty with Russia that would further reduce U.S. nuclear weapons and long-range conventional delivery systems. Beijing operates under no restraints whatsoever in enhancing its nuclear and ballistic missile options, while also developing new "carrier killer" cruise missiles.

On nuclear nonproliferation, China is evermore uncooperative. As Washington pushes for further economic sanctions against Iran, Beijing is distancing itself from the effort.

Whether China's face to the world will continue to be more of a snarl than a smile remains to be seen. But its leaders cannot expect the United States and other governments to remain passive for long.

In part, the apparent distance stems from the Obama administration's unrealistic spin about how cooperative China and Russia were on the Security Council's recent ineffective sanctions resolution. But the truth is that China was never serious about tough sanctions. If anything, it is now likely to double down on its relationship with Iran, particularly with regard to oil and natural gas, in order to help Iran meet its domestic need for refined petroleum products.

Updated U.S. sanctions against North Korea also are not sitting well with the Chinese. In many respects, the Obama administration has taken a tougher line against Pyongyang than the Bush administration did: The State Department has cracked down hard on the North's access to international financial markets and is no longer openly hungering for negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.

On the other hand, Mr. Obama has not made it clear that the only stable long-term solution to the problem of the North's nuclear program is the reunification of the peninsula under a democratic government. This should be an urgent priority, since Kim Jong Il's poor health brings that day of reckoning ever nearer.

Nor has the president responded strongly enough to Chinese efforts to keep U.S. warships from transiting and exercising in the Yellow Sea--something U.S. ships have a legitimate right to do. North Korea's unresolved maritime border with South Korea there is a continuing source of tension, and Pyongyang has, with tacit Chinese support, repeatedly made threats against U.S.-South Korean naval exercises.

America must be clear in word and deed that we will sail in international waters when and where we deem it advisable. These intentions must be declared openly, as well as expressed privately to China, so that all other nations understand our resolve.

American weakness on freedom of the seas is particularly dangerous given confrontational Chinese naval behavior in the South China Sea, buttressing Beijing's unjustifiable territorial claims to the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rightly took a more confrontational stance on this issue last month when she rejected China's position, insisting that territorial rights "should be derived solely from legitimate claims to land features."

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi snapped back angrily, calling her remarks an "attack" and blustering that U.S. involvement would "only make matters worse and the resolution more difficult." In fact, China ratcheted up its over-reaching territorial claims, provocatively including them among its "core interests."

Domestically, Beijing is also on the offensive, prompting even previously submissive foreign investors to fight back. Google's refusal to capitulate to Chinese interference in its search engine continues, while both European and American business interests have complained about increasing discrimination against foreigners in China's domestic markets. General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt accused Beijing of "hostility" to foreign corporations (although he subsequently walked back the accusation) and there appear to be increasing obstacles for lenders to recover on defaulted debts from Chinese firms.

China's long-awaited transition to a more democratic government isn't going anywhere. Beijing's repression of religious freedom continues unabated. And the government continues to flood Tibet and Xianxing with ethnic Han Chinese to overwhelm the "splittist" tendencies among those regions' respective indigenous populations.

Whether China's face to the world will continue to be more of a snarl than a smile remains to be seen. But its leaders cannot expect the United States and other governments to remain passive for long. "Softly, softly" is hardly the right reaction to Beijing's new belligerence, unless Mr. Obama is prepared to see it continue.

John Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

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  • John R. Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At AEI, Ambassador Bolton's area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy.

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