HONG KONG – The installation of a new generation of leaders in China, albeit still incomplete, provides an opportunity for change in the Sino-American relationship, now that U.S. President Barack Obama has been re-elected.
Both countries recognize that the bilateral relationship needs a new anchor. China has called for a “new type of relationship with other major countries in the 21st century” while the United States has defined the task, in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as trying to “write a new answer to the question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet.”
Clinton posed the question as a need to balance competition between the two powers and cooperation where their interests coincide. China has made it clear that the “new type of relationship” means a sharing of power, with the U.S. making room for China.
It stands to reason that as China’s power increases, it will play a bigger role and the U.S. has repeatedly said that it welcomes a stronger China. But China should understand that more power also means more responsibility and it cannot expect greater influence without also assuming a part of the burden borne almost exclusively by the U.S. in terms of providing public goods for the rest of the world.
Interestingly, China in previous decades had demonstrated that it has no ambition to dominate — at least, no territorial ambitions. Thus, in 1962, after Chinese troops had easily penetrated Indian defenses and marched into disputed areas claimed by both countries, Beijing unilaterally announced a ceasefire and pulled its troops back to restore the status quo ante.
Similarly, in 1979, China announced ahead of time that it was going to “teach Vietnam a lesson” for having invaded Cambodia. Again, Chinese troops moved into Vietnam, suffering substantial casualties, to be sure, but after their mission was accomplished, Beijing again pulled the troops back without taking an inch of Vietnamese territory.
Early Chinese leaders, including Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, used the military to make a point, after which they pointedly withdrew their forces, even though — as in the case of India — the border continues to be disputed.
Today’s Chinese leaders seem to be behaving differently. Where the Philippines is concerned, for example, the Chinese have roped off the only entrance to the lagoon inside Scarborough Shoal and now control access to it. As for the dispute over the Diaoyu islands with Japan, which calls them the Senkaku Islands, Chinese ships now patrol the disputed area on a daily basis, challenging Japan Coast Guard vessels. The Chinese foreign ministry has made it clear that these patrol boats will not be withdrawn and says that a new status quo has been created.
It is true that in both cases China can claim that it was simply responding to actions by other countries. But that same claim can legitimately be made of China’s attack on India as well, since that was in response to Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s “forward policy” of moving troops into areas controlled by China and refusing to negotiate.
In the old days, China was satisfied with demonstrating its power and then withdrawing its troops. These days, it appears, China is intent on actually gaining territory.
Much has been said of the Obama administration’s announced “pivot to Asia.” Beijing accuses Washington of stirring up trouble in the region by supporting countries with which China has territorial disputes. But China, by its moves, is very much pivoting to Asia on its own and in a much more provocative manner than the U.S., which makes no territorial claims.
Washington may already be sending signals to the new Chinese leadership. During Obama’s visit to Cambodia last week to take part in the East Asia Summit, he indicated American interest in cooperation in economic and trade areas and did not dwell on the South China Sea disputes. The state-run China Daily has voiced approval of this.
China, too, needs to tone down. The recent decision by China to issue passports incorporating maps showing all disputed areas as Chinese territory does nothing but infuriate its neighbors. It is another example of an assertive China not being sensitive to other countries’ feelings.
The new Chinese leadership should emulate the nation’s founders and demonstrate that, regardless of who starts a confrontation, China will not take advantage of a crisis by grabbing disputed territory.
That way, Beijing will lessen the apprehension of its neighbors. This will simultaneous also create the conditions for a better relationship with Washington.
Frank Ching is a political commentator and journalist based in Hong Kong.