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The international debate over the direction of China’s foreign policy, and particularly its relations with the United States, is and will be robust for years to come. There is no consensus on issues like China’s global priorities, its choice of friends, or its methods, let alone over China’s relationship with the sole remaining superpower. In fact, one of Robert G. Sutter’s major contributions in “U.S.-Chinese Relations: Perilous Past, Pragmatic Present,” is to underline clearly how broad is the uncertainty even among China specialists for what many believe is the 21st Century’s most important bilateral relationship.
Recognizing this ambiguity will not please those who assert that all is well in China, that its continued economic growth will be smooth and uninterrupted, and that its performance in international affairs, politically and economically, is productive, cooperative and transparent. This prayerful hope that everything in China is working out for the best is especially strong among those who see a rosy future for relations between Beijing and Washington.
And such a scenario is certainly possible, but it is hardly the only one, and not even necessarily the most likely. Too much is uncertain, including the behind-the-scenes relations of key Chinese actors like the Peoples Liberation Army and the civilian Communist Party leadership.
Sutter provides an extensive historical assessment of U.S.-Chinese relations that helps put present day issues in perspective, and provides a basis for predictive analysis about the future. And while Sutter recognizes that pragmatism has often rescued the relationship from seemingly intractable problems, he also acknowledges that pragmatism may have its limits when truly vital interests are at stake.
And that is why, even more importantly, the future is highly uncertain, not only for foreigners, but for the Chinese themselves. One specific example policy challenge shows graphically how the differing perspectives held by Washington and Beijing have clashed in the recent past, and may well do so in the coming years.
If China truly wanted global and regional stability, as its Western acolytes contend, its efforts to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical and biological, and ballistic missile technology) would be far stronger. In fact, despite some improvement in recent years, Beijing still seems not to appreciate proliferation’s grave and growing threat. Neither do China’s leaders appear concerned about their critical role in sheltering the worst proliferators, or the role they could play in being part of the solution instead of part of the problem. Consider the following.
North Korea is, without doubt, China’s biggest liability. Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program poses a threat to peace and security not only in East Asia, but worldwide. The North’s aggressive sales of ballistic missiles and technology into the Middle East, and its nuclear cooperation with regimes there (such as the reactor it was constructing in Syria until Israel destroyed it in September, 2007) show that its poisonous reach is truly global.
Only China has the ability to change North Korea from the outside, but it has repeatedly chosen not to do so. Perhaps China is still under the grip of antiquated ties between the two Communist parties, or perhaps Beijing fears that exerting too much influence over Kim Jung-il will collapse his regime, creating conditions of anarchy that could result in the Korean Peninsula’s reunification.
But if China really wanted real stability in East Asia, it would recognize that a divided Peninsula and the aberrant regime in Pyongyang are precisely what prevent it. Moreover, if China really has economic development as its highest priority, it would understand that regional instability cannot be conducive to increased foreign trade and investment. Some believe younger Chinese leaders recognize that continued support for Communism’s only hereditary dictatorship makes less and less sense, but the rest of the world would prefer not to wait for this generation of leaders to finally assume power.
China should contribute far more to counter-proliferation efforts, and would enhance its long-term position in a reunited Korea by getting on the right side of unification now, and not have that outcome, in effect, imposed upon it by the press of future events. Given the uncertainty over Kim Jong-il’s health, and the even-greater uncertainty over his succession, we may face a regime crisis sooner than later, a possibility for which neither China nor other major powers in the region are currently prepared.
Similarly, China (along with Russia) flies political cover in the UN Security Council for Iran’s nuclear weapons program, largely because of China’s all-consuming desire for assured supplies of oil and natural gas. And yet it is precisely Iran’s nuclear aspirations that constitute the major source of Middle East, and perhaps even global, instability, with the riskiest potential consequences both for energy prices and assurances of supply. Beijing has no conceivable long- or short-term interest in a nuclear Iran, especially given Iran’s desire to dominate the Moslem world with its radical philosophy, a development China can hardly welcome.
Nonetheless, despite many sound reasons to the contrary, Beijing acts as if it has little interest in Iran’s nuclear program. A China truly seeking international stability would long ago have joined vigorous U.S. efforts to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and the inevitable further Middle Eastern proliferation (with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and perhaps others obtaining nuclear weapons). China’s Iran policy is thus further convincing evidence that Beijing’s supposed preference for international stability is not consistent with its current policies.
Even worse, China in years past directly aided Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, almost certainly to counterbalance or encircle India. Unfortunately, the inevitable result of China’s proliferation work was an increasingly dangerous Subcontinent, right on China’s border, and the acute and growing risk that an unstable Pakistan (and its substantial nuclear arsenal) will fall into the hands of Islamic radicals and terrorists.
It is too late for China to erase its earlier mistake, but it could certainly do far more to help America persuade Pakistan’s government that destroying the al Qaeda/Taleban base of operations along the Afghan border is absolutely critical to stability in central Asia and globally. Despite the obvious potential impact of Pakistan gone wrong, China is nearly invisible on the issue, hardly the picture of an emerging superpower, or even a middle-sized power willing to do what is necessary to create stability in its region.
Why China follows policies so directly contrary to its national interests is inexplicable. Given the general thrust of U.S. nonproliferation policy, which is generally coherent even if often ineffective, it would not be hard for China to fashion a parallel course, instead of finding itself constantly at loggerheads with U.S. objectives.
Yet for decades, China has failed to make this choice, and it is entirely unclear that it is prepared to do so in the near future. Helping to understand the deficiencies in China’s appreciation of its own interests and their implications as they relate especially to the United States is Sutter’s major contribution, and a most important one.
John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.
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