It's a commonplace for leaders to come to Washington, hat in hand, supplicating for money or diplomatic succor or both. And it's not unusual for allies to come for one political exercise or another. But since the end of the European Cold War it's pretty rare for the leader of our opponent in the Pacific Cold War -- China -- to visit. The European Cold War ended when the Soviet Union dissolved. The Pacific Cold War against China has been going on since the first one ended. In this skirmish, China's president Hu Jintao will visit the White House this week.
President Bush seems eager to avoid raising expectations for this meeting. Continuing a broad dialogue with Hu is wise, but the prospects for any substantial resolution of differences are remote. Our enormous trade deficit with China aside, Hu Jintao's regime is a partner with Russia in forestalling UN Security Council action against Iran's nuclear weapons program and a major trading partner with every nation on our list of state sponsors of terrorism. While Vladimir Putin toils diligently to reestablish authoritarianism in Russia, Hu's China is a totalitarian state that is pursuing a military buildup at a pace last achieved by 1930s Germany.
Every year Parade Magazine lists its The World's Ten Worst Dictators. Ranked last year at #4, Hu Jintao's 2006 rating has dropped to #6. Parade summarizes:
Although some Chinese have taken advantage of economic liberalization to become rich, up to 150 million Chinese live on $1 a day or less in this nation with no minimum wage. Between 250,000 and 300,000 political dissidents are held in "reeducation-through-labor" camps without trial. Less than 5% of criminal trials include witnesses, and the conviction rate is 99.7%. There are no privately owned TV or radio stations. The government opens and censors mail and monitors phone calls, faxes, e-mails and text messages. In preparation for the 2008 Olympics, at least 400,000 residents of Beijing have been forcibly evicted from their homes.
Hu Jintao is a party apparatchik who came to prominence in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989. Although he apparently wasn't a party to the decision to shoot the pro-democracy demonstrators, his consulship of Tibet saw the same brutal repressions at about the same time. Hu's regime is convinced that democracy is not an irresistible force but that it can -- and will -- be defeated. Since coming to power in 2002, Hu has sought to use China's economic boom to fuel its military buildup which, in turn, is concealed by false budget numbers and rhetoric of "peaceful rise" to superpower status. The 2005 Defense Department report, "The Military Power of the People's Republic of China," reminded the world of the "24-Character Strategy" of China, established by Hu's political mentor, Deng Xiaoping. Its two-dozen Chinese characters translate as, "Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership." Hu remains dedicated to the 24-Character Strategy and it is in pursuit of it that Hu visits America.
Hu comes to reinforce China's status as America's peer in economic, diplomatic and -- almost -- in military terms. Hu wants to reassure America that China's intentions are peaceful, and to place himself in control of the international debate on Iran. President Bush will talk about some compromise on China's overvalued currency, reducing our trade deficit with China, and seek some leverage in the Iran debate. But China will not budge and because of that, there are more important goals for the president in this meeting. Mr. Bush is in a stronger position to assert them than may appear because China's neighbors are watching every Sino-American interaction.
China seeks regional dominance to provide a safe base for further expansion. Its military buildup is aimed, in the short term, at providing unquestioned superiority on its periphery -- nations such as Japan and South Korea -- and asserting dominance over Taiwan. Our defense treaty with Japan places us squarely between the two nations, and the President's statements that we will defend querulous Taiwan have kept China at bay. Though the White House rejects the term, our quiet strategy against China is, and must continue to be, containment. Over the past two years, we have made gains among the nations on China's periphery due almost entirely to the quiet diplomatic efforts of the Defense Department and its Assistant Secretary for International Affairs, Peter Rodman.
India, the most powerful nation on China's borders, was alienated from America during the Clinton years over sanctions against its nuclear weapons program. Our new relationship with India is a real breakthrough. And China's other neighbors, fearing its military buildup, have come to us seeking reassurance of goodwill, and more. These nations fear being drawn into a Sino-American war and, like the Europeans, want us to protect them but do so in a way that costs them nothing in their relations with China. President Bush can, without using the "containment" term he finds objectionable, make it clear to Hu that we will continue to grow our ties to the peripheral nations and thus contain China's ambitions.
Hu will also be seeking the means of accelerating China's military buildup. Last year, through extraordinary showings of strength from the White House and Congress, the President managed to buy a year on the question of the European arms embargo against China. It was only when senators such as the usually diplomatic Richard Lugar threatened congressional action against Europe if it lifted the embargo that the EUnuchs backed down. The EUnuchs will take it up again this year, and Hu will be looking for a politically weakened Bush to be more compliant. The President should manufacture an opportunity to reaffirm his undiluted opposition to any lifting of the embargo. The fact that the embargo is leaky, he might say offhand, is no reason to lift it.
There is no chance whatever that China will change its position on Iran, and, media speculation to the contrary, any failure of the President to gain its support on Iran will be no defeat. China is not our ally, and not -- at least yet -- our military peer. It is an adversary in the Pacific Cold War.
TAS contributing editor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think (Regnery, 2004) and the forthcoming book (with Edward Timperlake) Showdown: Why China Wants War with the United States (Regnery, May 2006).
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