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There is an odd boldness on Beijing’s part to send a spy ship to keep tabs on the annual US RIMPAC maritime exercises. After all, to great fanfare, the Chinese were invited to participate in this year’s multilateral gathering, and indeed, sent four ships to do so. This, of course, was trumpeted by Washington as heralding yet another step in the development of relations of trust and partnership between China and the United States, between the US and Chinese navies, and between China and other US allies. Such has been the metier of the US Government since the 1970s: get China involved in global activities, and it will grow into a responsible role. Meanwhile, Beijing has taken advantage of Western desire for better relations to steal hundreds of billions of dollars of government, military, and industrial secrets; build up its armed forces; and challenge liberal norms of behavior throughout the world (see, Sudan, Syria, Iran, North Korea, South and East China Seas, etc.).
Now, even when given a red carpet welcome to our most important naval exercises, the Chinese can’t help but poke a finger in the American eye. The US Pacific Fleet spokesman, Captain Darryn James, stated that he knew of no other participant in the naval exercises who had ever sent a surveillance ship since RIMPAC began in 1971. While the Chinese kept their ship just out of US waters, it was nonetheless conspicuously present throughout the exercises. One has to ask why would Beijing take such an insulting, and even provocative, step? Is it overconfidence that the US will take no actions in response to their show of bad faith (a reasonable calculation), a fear that their own ships were being covertly surveyed (one hopes the US would take such initiative), or simply a mindset that China and the US are in reality adversaries, despite any type of fig leaf cooperation?
No one should get the vapors over the Chinese trying to spy on the Yankees; certainly since revelations of the NSA’s worldwide activities have exploded over the past year, the US cannot pretend to be innocent of cyber action. Moreover, the US undoubtedly spies on China with even more sophisticated military assets than what China can bring to bear, and does so on a comprehensive scale. But that is different from pouring vinegar into the punch at an event designed precisely to try and alter such behavior over the long-term. Beijing’s actions show that it believes even cooperative opportunities offer a chance to show its distrust and that it will privilege perceived national interests above any type of conciliatory behavior. Once American policymakers understand this, they might consider different ways of engaging with the Chinese, such as by no longer pretending that one or ten invites to “trust building” initiatives will change China’s perceptions of the threats it faces and its core interests.
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