You have to give Beijing credit: At least it’s consistent and incessant in trying to get its way. At the start of a major Sino-European summit last week in Beijing, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao again demanded that the European Union drop its 20-plus-year arms embargo and all trade tariffs on China.
It was time, he said, to move the relationship between China and the world’s largest economic bloc forward, delivering the message as most of Europe reeled from a weak economy.
The arms embargo was imposed in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, and China has spent the past decade pressuring European nations to openly resume arms sales. That hasn’t stopped European nations from selling China a range of other military systems that, while not lethal, have improved China’s ability to intimidate its neighbors.
Indeed, any thought of lifting the embargo ought to be erased after looking at how China is treating its neighbors right now.
In China, government-fueled riots have shuttered Japanese-owned factories. In the South and East China Seas, Chinese fishing boats continue to act as proxies in Beijing’s efforts to redraw territorial boundaries and gain control of the seas and their ample resources, part of an intimidation campaign to convince Beijing’s neighbors to back down and see things its way.
China’s neighbors aren’t backing down, however, prompting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to make his second major trip to Asia this summer.
In Tokyo, which is locked in an ugly spat with China over the Senkaku Islands, Panetta reassured officials and agreed to transfer key technologies and systems — such as missile defense radars — to improve Japanese defenses. In New Zealand, he worked to restore military relations that were virtually severed 30 years ago, when the South Pacific nation declared itself a nuclear-free zone.
Then, in Beijing, Panetta assured China’s new leader that America isn’t trying to contain China, but aims to improve relations over the long term and ensure regional stability. He urged China to resolve its territorial disputes peacefully and multinationally.
Here, Panetta walks a very fine line. The fact is, while China has agreed to work with Southeast Asian nations to develop a binding code of conduct to avoid disputes, its actions suggest a long-range objective inconsistent with that kind of diplomacy. Beijing continues to methodically build military capabilities that — eventually — could be used to compel its neighbors to yield to its demands without firing a shot, while keeping U.S. forces from operating in the region.
As Panetta was in Beijing, top U.S. Air Force officials were at their annual convention outside Washington talking about how they intend to systemically counter each of China’s moves.
Washington deserves credit for upping its game in Asia, but can’t succeed on its own. Over the long haul, whether on trade or security, the only way to gain leverage over China is if Europe and America work in tandem rather than cross purposes.
America must also continue to bolster the capabilities of its Asian allies. A regional command-and-control network, as proposed by the American Enterprise Institute, could allow countries to monitor Chinese intimidation efforts in real time. Goal one is to improve regional awareness of transgressions. Goal two is to deter China by increasing scrutiny — and publicity — of its bullying.
It’s equally important to recognize that China is at a crossroads and that its external actions are linked to its internal situation, which is far from rosy. China has grown dramatically over the past decade, but it is also a vast and diverse nation that faces an array of staggering economic, social and political challenges.
The U.S., Asia and Europe must consider what happens if the world’s largest country as we know it changes abruptly or disintegrates.
China is in the midst of an economic downturn that is fueling unrest — problematic for an authoritarian government that justifies its legitimacy largely on its ability to deliver steady and sizable annual growth.
How to keep advancing prosperity is the central internal debate among existing and future Chinese leaders, and their success or failure will have repercussions far beyond China’s borders, repercussions that any China policy must be built to withstand.