America's adversaries, China's friends

July 16, 2009
Washington Times

"In the world today, virtually all of America's adversaries are China's friends." This remarkable observation was made in South China's popular Guangzhou Daily by Yuan Peng, a U.S.-trained expert serving China's Ministry of State Security, in a November 2007 article titled "America's three major schemes to impede China's rise."
At the same time, Victor Cha, a former Bush White House Asia expert, wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs that China was one of "Washington's New Comrades" in a new Northeast Asian "regional architecture" where "Washington looks forward to China's assuming a major role as a real problem solver in the region."
These are contradictory perspectives of America's relationship with China, yet paradoxically both are true. Virtually all America's adversaries are China's friends, while American policymakers persuade themselves that China is a "real problem solver." President Obama's foreign policy, like President Bush's before it, seeks to place China at the center of our Asian interests. Ironically, it is the Chinese who complain of a "Cold War mentality" in Washington.
Set aside for a moment China's patronage of every rogue nation and petty despot across the globe. Can one honestly see, running through the inventory of America's policy priorities, a single area where U.S. and Chinese aims coincide? The policies China pursues globally in nonproliferation, environment or climate change, fair trade, competition for resources, intellectual property, cybersecurity, recovery of U.S. manufacturing, the territorial integrity of America's allies and friends, or human rights seem to have the practical effect of undermining America. And when Chinese leaders tell their American counterparts that they really do support some American priority or another, do China's actions seem consistently to be in the opposite direction? After 35 years of watching Beijing's diplomacy, I have learned that what Beijing has done is an infinitely better predictor of its future behavior than what it tells us it will do.
China's relationship with North Korea is a perfect example. This is the "Year of China-North Korea Friendship" - in January, Beijing's Communist Party international liaison department chief visited Pyongyang to help North Korea publicize the miraculous recovery of "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il from the stroke he reportedly suffered last summer. In March, China hosted the North Korean premier for five days of intensive talks - during which the North Korean "Sea of Blood" song-and-dance troupe performed for the premiers of both countries and 2,000 of their closest comrades. In a touching gesture, "Dear Leader" personally supervised the "Sea of Blood" rehearsal before the troupe departed for Beijing.
In April, China defended North Korea's test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile over Japan and 2,361 miles out into the Pacific toward Hawaii. Beijing called it a commercial space launch and said Pyongyang had made the necessary international notifications. When North Korea launched a similar missile in July 2006, China's U.N. ambassador "repeatedly blamed the entire crisis on Japan's aspiration for a permanent seat on the Security Council," according to former U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton.
Cynically, China then approved a U.N. resolution criticizing North Korea's missile tests in order to ensure it was harmless. Beijing followed the same strategy in October 2006 by defanging a U.N. resolution condemning North Korea's first nuclear weapons test - which the Chinese subsequently managed to persuade the Bush administration not to enforce.
When North Korea detonated a second nuclear device on May 25, Beijing whispered its dismay to Americans, but insisted on a toothless U.N. resolution that only permits high-seas boarding of North Korean weapons ships with North Korean consent.
Last week, a visiting Chinese vice foreign minister reportedly told the U.S. State Department that blame for the crisis over Pyongyang's second nuclear test can be put mostly on Washington. China's media is filled with analyses of how North Korea needs a nuclear weapon to protect it from the United States, and that North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons - except perhaps in a comprehensive negotiation in which the United States also abandons its nuclear arsenal.
Still, if it does not make sense to American intelligence analysts that China actually supports North Korea's nuclear weapons development, then they must ask themselves why China's military continues to facilitate the transit of nuclear, missile and chemical weapons technology and materiel across China - even through Chinese air bases and seaports - between North Korea, Pakistan, Syria, Iran and (it seems) now Myanmar. As recently as March, the CIA vaguely reported to Congress that Chinese state-owned military export firms "continue to engage in WMD-related proliferation activities."
Some argue that Beijing is only humoring Pyongyang to keep the regime afloat lest a collapsing North release a million refugees across the Yalu River into China. That reasoning suggests China is far less unsettled by a nuclear-armed North Korean dictator with severe megalomaniacal symptoms than by a tide of refugees.
But it doesn't explain Beijing's similar insouciance toward weapons proliferation to Iran or Syria. While the rest of the world (Russia excepted) is hysterical about Iran's campaign to enrich weapons-grade uranium, Beijing signs industrial investment and natural gas development deals with Tehran. In an e-mail last month, one U.S. official, commenting on Pentagon analyses of Iran-North Korea missile cooperation, asserted to me that Pyongyang was "China's proxy on proliferation."
In this context, China's relentless military buildup has terrified Taiwan, Japan, India and Vietnam, against whom China has uncompromising territorial claims. In mid-2008, nearly 60 new Chinese launch pads for medium-range nuclear ballistic missiles were identified in western China - within range of India. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates openly admits uneasiness with China's nuclear weapons modernization. Defense Department analysts tell me privately that China's nuclear modernization is now the most advanced in the world.
On global trade and financial fronts, China's effective ideology of state mercantilism has left the United States ill-prepared to confront Beijing either economically or strategically. To be sure, the United States is in no position to hedge against its adversaries around the world - "virtually all" of whom are China's friends - by itself. But unless President Obama can quietly rebuild America's alliances and friendships in Asia in a way the Bush team failed to do, it can look forward to a new century in which China's communist leaders make the rules in Asia, and the rest of Asia will have no choice but to play by them.
John J. Tkacik, a retired Foreign Service officer, was chief of China analysis in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research during the Clinton Administration.


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