Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Hold steady on China

Following the ASAT test conducted in January of this year, the behavior of the PLA is once again providing China hawks in the US with reason to bang the war drums (or perhaps just the containment cymbals, not that those are any less distressing). The latest incident, of course, involves China's last-minute rejection of a planned visit by the USS Kitty Hawk to Hong Kong, where the crew would meet with family members for Thanksgiving. This followed on the heels China's denial of safe harbor to US Navy minesweepers that were seeking shelter from a storm, contravening centuries of maritime custom.

The Pentagon, reports the BBC, has protested to the Chinese government, which responded by claiming that the Kitty Hawk incident was the result of a "misunderstanding." The FT suggests that the two incidents could jeopardize ties between the two navies, which have matured in recent years. Remember earlier this year when Admiral Timothy Keating, the new commander of US Pacific Command, suggested that the US might help China develop aircraft carriers?

There are two separate but not mutually exclusive theories floating around to explain these incidents. Some suggest that Beijing is retaliating for the Dalai Lama's receiving the Congressional Gold Medal. Others talk darkly of the PLA's being beyond the control of the Communist Party (an argument I considered here).

If it's the former, there's nothing to worry about — the issue will have passed, and Sino-US relations will continue to be as positive as the People's Daily says in an article about a meeting between President Bush and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. Meanwhile, even if this incident is part of a pattern along with the ASAT test and reports of Chinese cyber raids on the Pentagon, that still should not preclude a deepening of defense ties between the US and China.

The US has no choice but to deal with China. A PLA unaccountable to any authority, while worrisome, does not change this fact. Indeed, the greater the independence enjoyed by the PLA, the greater the need for regularized interaction between the military officers and government officials not just from the US and China, but from the other countries in the region. Scaling back or cutting security ties with China and its military will simply make the PLA more hostile and less cooperative, reaffirming the impression surely common in certain circles within the PLA that the US and its allies seek to encircle China.

Yes, China's behavior is maddening and hard to understand. But the US, as the maintainer of stability and order in the region, has the duty to ignore the slight and focus on the task of coaxing China into acting as a pillar of order, not an unpredictable actor and potential menace. Clearly, the signals from China are mixed — interesting that this incident has unfolded just as a PLAN destroyer arrives in Japan for a historic visit. Decisions made by the US and its allies still have the ability to affect the direction of China's emergence for better or worse.

Here's hoping that cooler heads within the US Navy and the defense establishment prevail, despite those inside and outside the government who look for incidents like this to confirm their worst fears about China (like, say, Lou Dobbs, as mentioned by Tom Barnett).

Perhaps it's time for that Organization for Security and Cooperation in Asia.


Bryce said...

Ah yes, the petit realists are having a field day with this one, and I'm sure that officials in the U.S. will furrow their brows and stamp their feet for at least another three days.

But perhaps the answer is that China is such a behemoth of a nation that from time to time lines of communication become crossed and it doesn't behave like a rational actor. Given that the Chinese asked the KH to turn around and come back, perhaps it really was just a silly mistake.

I know that realists get all excited about signals states send each other, but even Freud thought that sometimes umbrellas were just umbrellas. If China wanted to make some sort of point, there are a number of ways it could more clearly have done so.

tornados28 said...

bryce, very unlikely that it was a silly mistake. And yes, China does do these types of things to send messages or make a point as they have done it in the past.

Dragon Horse said...

Tornado28 is right. China is not at all irrational, they are doing this to send a firm message. There have been a lot of things going on between China and Taiwan lately and the CCP is getting worried. Check it out.

tornados28 said...

See, I knew it. China states it was not missunderstanding but punishment for U.S. allowing visit by Dalia Lama with President and giving the Dalia Lama an award. See LA Times article.,1,1960666.story?coll=la-headlines-world

Bryce said...

Oh yes.

China is so much the rational actor that it has given three separate and contradictory explanations for the refusal of the port visit. Nice.

Bryce said...

And by the way, the L.A. Times has attributed far more certainty to the Chinese spokesperson Liu Jianchao than other newspapers. It seems that Mr. Liu comments were interpreted as a sign that China "may be" pissed off about the Dalai Lama, not that he said anything concrete:

"Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao did not draw a direct connection between any specific event and China's barring of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk and its escort vessels from entering Hong Kong harbor for a planned Thanksgiving visit.",CST-NWS-china30.article

So there you go. Lot's of lovely speculation, but no concrete evidence that China's actions are retaliation for any specific event.

tornados28 said...

Bryce, you are missing the point. The point is not what speciafically china is retaliating for. The point is that china is no doubt retaliating for something, whether it be the dalai lama or whatever. The point I make is that it was not some simple missunderstanding and it never is.