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The west needs to stand up to Beijing

Posted by Author on January 18, 2011

Mao Zedong once said that “all political power comes from the barrel of a gun”. Whether his apostolic successor President Hu Jintao, visiting President Barack Obama this week in Washington, believes this particular line in Mao’s catechism is unclear. Completely clear, however, is that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) not only believes it, but is implementing it.

Systematic expansion of China’s strategic nuclear weapons and delivery capabilities; rapid growth in submarine and blue-water naval forces; substantial investments in anti-access and area-denial weapons such as anti-carrier cruise missiles; fifth-generation fighter-bomber platforms; and sophisticated cyber-warfare techniques all testify to the PLA’s operational objectives.
Western business and political leaders have chattered for years about China as a globally “responsible stakeholder” enjoying a “peaceful rise”. This is the acceptable face Mr Hu will present in Washington. But just because the musclemen aren’t listed on the Chinese leader’s passenger manifest doesn’t mean they aren’t flying the plane. China’s Communist party remains unquestionably dominant, and the PLA remains its most potent element.

During US defence secretary Robert Gates’ Beijing meetings last week, China tested its stealthy new J-20, a prototype combat aircraft. Many scoffed at the notion that Mr Hu seemed surprised when Mr Gates raised the test, and at the Chinese leader’s explanation that the timing was coincidental. Was the J-20 flight intended to embarrass Mr Gates and Mr Obama prior to Mr Hu’s Washington visit, or was it a signal to China’s civilian leadership about who is actually in charge? In truth, both seem likely.

Both Mr Hu and the PLA undoubtedly understand that China is dealing with the most leftwing, least national-security-oriented, least assertive American president in decades. This matters because China will be heavily influenced by its perception of US policies and capabilities. Mr Obama’s extravagant domestic spending, and the consequent ballooning of America’s national debt, has enhanced China’s position at America’s expense. Indeed, the only budget line Mr Obama has been interested in cutting, which he has done with gusto, is defence.

Sensing growing weakness, therefore, it would be surprising if China did not continue its assertive economic, political and military policies. Thus, we can expect more discrimination against foreign investors and businesses in China, as both the US and European Union chambers of commerce there have recently complained. Further expansive, unjustifiable territorial claims in adjacent east Asian waters are also likely. While the Pentagon is clipping coupons and limiting its nuclear capabilities in treaties with Russia, the PLA is celebrating Mardi Gras.

Consider two further important issues: Taiwan and North Korea. When Beijing threatened Taipei in 1996 President Bill Clinton sent two carrier battle groups to the Taiwan strait, demonstrating America’s commitment to Taiwan’s defence. Does anyone, particularly in Beijing, believe Mr Obama would do anything nearly as muscular faced with comparable belligerence today? On the North Korean menace, meanwhile, Mr Obama is conforming to a 20-year pattern of US deference to China which has enabled a bellicose, nuclear Pyongyang.

Of course, if China sensed an America determined to maintain its dominant position in the western Pacific, and ready to match its determination with budget resources, it might be dissuaded from its recent objectionable behaviour. In such circumstances, more balanced, co-operative and ultimately more productive relations would likely follow. On the other hand, if China is determined to increase its military strength regardless of Washington’s posture, all the more reason for America to ready itself now.

China should take careful note: neither Mr Hu nor the PLA ought to assume that Mr Obama truly represents broader US public opinion. There could be a different president two years hence, ready to reverse his agenda of international passivity and decline. Beijing can certainly take advantage of Mr Obama for now, both because of his philosophical and leadership weaknesses. But so doing could cost them in the future, if America in 2012 goes to the next level in rejecting Mr Obama’s failing policies.

The writer is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and served as US ambassador to the UN 2005-2006

The Financial Times

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