Interesting Times: Sino-American Relations in Transatlantic Perspective

This text is a supplement to Interesting Times: China, America, and the Shifting Balance of Prestige, by Chas W. Freeman, Jr., published by Just World Books in January 2013. Other texts offered in this series can be accessed here.

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Sino-American Relations in Transatlantic Perspective

Remarks to a Sino-European seminar convened by the Chinese Institute of International Strategic Studies in Beijing, China, November 18, 2003

Secretary of State Colin Powell recently proclaimed that United States–China relations have never been better. I was glad to hear that, though as someone directly involved for more than three decades in the building of this relationship, I thought it a bit of an overstatement. But there has indisputably been a dramatic improvement in the tone and atmosphere of bilateral interaction since the early days of the Bush administration. Some of this improvement is due to the impact of events; some is the achievement of skillful statecraft and diplomacy, including efforts by Secretary Powell, but especially Chinese diplomacy.

Three years ago, the United States suffered from what might be called “enemy deprivation syndrome,” the sick feeling of disorientation that comes over one who has lost a longtime adversary. Perhaps China had a touch of this disease too. In any event, for a while it appeared that the two sides would succumb to an excess of strategic imagination and select each other as enemies for the new century.

This trend was fortunately set aside after the atrocities of September 11, 2001. What happened then made it apparent that the United States faced a real enemy. Al-Qaeda is an Egyptian-managed, transnational movement of Islamic xenophobes, headquartered in Afghanistan and led by a charismatic Saudi Arabian fanatic. No China connection there! But when al-Qaeda’s Afghan bases were taken, it became clear that its recruits included many would-be terrorists from China.

The discovery of a new common enemy provided a persuasive basis for enhanced Sino-American cooperation in intelligence and law enforcement. Meanwhile, a series of regional security problems in South Asia and on the Korean Peninsula reminded even those Americans most skeptical about the relationship that there is a growing list of international problems that cannot be addressed without help from China. China, of course, has been consistently aware of the importance of good relations with the United States to sustaining a peaceful international environment in which it can rebuild its wealth and power.

At the unofficial level of business and people-to-people interaction, the bilateral relationship continues to enjoy explosive growth. But at the official level, what has been accomplished is less a broadening or advance in Sino-American relations than an arrest in their decline. The two sides have not found a basis for a broad strategic dialogue about global issues.

Military-to-military relations have finally been resumed at the level of ceremony but not at the level of substance. Disputes over arms exports by China to various countries hostile to the United States and U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are dealt with perfunctorily and ineffectually in a medley of unilateral sanctioneering and a dialogue of the deaf that adds mutual rancor and suspicion rather than goodwill and confidence to the emotional underpinnings of the relationship. Economic relations continue to develop in unbalanced ways and to fall short of their potential. The image of each country in the eyes of the public in the other is inaccurate and often insultingly pejorative or hostile.

But if Sino-American relations have not advanced much at the official level outside the areas of law enforcement and regional diplomacy, they have nonetheless done better during this period than transatlantic relations. As the Bush administration has experimented with the novel concept of diplomacy-free foreign policy in Iraq and elsewhere, U.S. relations with Europe have been embittered by the emergence of conflicts over values as well as differences over interests. On each side of the Atlantic there is a sense that something fundamental is amiss in relations with the other.

The remarkable development of Sino-European relations thus stands as a marked contrast to largely stagnant Sino-American ties and the sadly degraded U.S. relationship with Europe. Sino-European meetings at summits and cooperation between experts on a widening range of topics are ever more frequent. The recent agreement on cooperation in the Galileo satellite program illustrates this point. Sino-European trade, now about two-thirds the level of Chinese trade with the United States, is forecast to overtake Sino-American trade within a decade. There are now many more Chinese students in Europe than in the United States. Europe has mapped a path for China that could eventually lead to renewed sales of weapons and military technology. Meanwhile, military exchanges of all kinds have become routine.

Despite their different bilateral concerns in relation to the United States, the same aspects of recent American policy and behavior seem to trouble Europeans and Chinese. Specifically, these include

  • the concept of “preemptive war” (or—more accurately—“preventative war”);
  • the unilateral proclamation of an “axis of evil”;
  • the invasion and occupation of Iraq in ways that denigrate the authority of the Security Council and devalue the roles of allies and multilateral institutions alike;
  • the substitution of unqualified support for Israeli military unilateralism for a nominally evenhanded diplomatic peace process between Israelis and Arabs; and
  • the intermittent preference for military coercion vs. diplomacy in relation to Iran, north Korea, and Syria.

The parallel concerns of Europeans and Chinese about possible rogue behavior on the part of the United States have had unintended positive effects that even Americans must welcome. In Iran, for the first time, a uniting Europe has concerted a tough-minded diplomatic initiative beyond its borders. This European initiative, which shows significant promise, has for now sidelined the militaristic approach favored by Washington hardliners. Meanwhile, in Korea, China has abandoned its traditional diplomatic passivity and has seized the lead in much-applauded efforts to craft a multilateral diplomatic framework that could solve a regional crisis.

Concern about American unilateralism and militarism may thus be midwifing the emergence of more effective, self-interested European and Chinese diplomacy. At a minimum, such diplomacy has shown that it can translate U.S. military power into positive political outcomes in ways that the United States currently seems to find it hard to accomplish. As such, it provides the basis for future partnership with a less militaristic—that is, a more normal—United States. At a maximum, it may be able—within limits—to provide a welcome alternative to overreliance on pax americana and the burdens on the United States that it entails.

Yet, if Europe and China seem somewhat similar in their concerns about American attitudes and behavior, there are profound differences in their respective relationships with each other and with the United States. Troubled as transatlantic relations may be, Europe and America continue to cohabit a single geopolitical zone amicably. European relations with China are now developing remarkable breadth and depth. Happily, in these early days of the twenty-first century, there is no plausible scenario by which either the United States and Europe or China and Europe might find themselves at war. The same, however, cannot be said for China and the United States. Sino-American military incidents and even a war centered on the Taiwan Strait are, unfortunately, still not at all impossible to imagine.

The Taiwan issue, from which Europe has, in my view, wisely remained largely aloof, has long been the flashpoint in Sino-American relations. Both sides have recognized its explosive nature and have managed it in such a way as to minimize the possibility of conflict and to promote the possibility of a peacefully negotiated solution. But Taiwan’s ruling party now proposes to carry out an act of secessionist self-determination by plebiscite. This would replace the current constitution, which roots sovereignty in the Chinese people as a whole, with a legal order based on an assertion of sovereignty by Taiwan’s inhabitants alone.

This radical proposal was made without prior consultation with the United States and in openly contemptuous disregard of American policies opposing unilateral efforts to alter the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. Its authors believe that President Bush has committed the United States to saving them from the consequences of their actions, even when he and other Americans oppose those actions as unduly provocative. But whether these Taiwan independence advocates are right or wrong in their judgment, their agenda significantly increases the danger of war in the Taiwan Strait and between China and America. Preventing such an outcome ought to be the subject of urgent consultations between all concerned.

The potential crisis in the Taiwan Strait aside, the past decade has provided ample illustration of the importance of accurate communication between the American and Chinese politico-military establishments. They must be able to read and understand each other’s signals of intent if they are to prevent the inadvertent outbreak or escalation of conflict. But the record in this regard is not encouraging.

In 1996, Chinese shows of force in the Taiwan Strait unintentionally provoked a naval response from an—arguably—overly alarmed United States. In 1999, the U.S. Air Force’s bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade was widely misinterpreted by Chinese as a deliberate act of humiliation. In 2001, when U.S. and Chinese aircraft collided off Hainan Island, the two countries displayed a remarkable capacity to misread each other’s signals and to speak and act in ways that aggravated the situation rather than facilitating a mutually satisfactory resolution.

Despite these and other incidents, there has been no serious effort to improve either bilateral crisis management or military understanding. Indeed, despite the nominally non-adversarial relationship between the two countries, there is far less substantive military dialogue between the U.S. and Chinese armed forces now than there was between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Should the Taiwan Strait one day erupt in combat, the U.S. and China will approach the issue of escalation control with only rudimentary knowledge and numerous incorrect presuppositions about how each side is likely to interpret the actions of the other. The probability of one or more serious misjudgments is high. This need not and should not be the case.

Thus, even as I hope that the U.S. and Chinese governments will find ways to cope peacefully with the challenges Mr. Chen Shui-bian and his colleagues in Taiwan seem intent on posing to the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, I continue to believe that the militaries of the our two countries must restore substantive dialogue and initiate broad programs of mutual familiarization. The stakes are too high for us not to do this. I, for one, would also welcome it if my countrymen were to take notice of the many heartening developments in Sino-European relations and to work to restore comparable momentum to United States relations with China. But our immediate priority must be to improve our bilateral crisis management capabilities.

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