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Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012

No Sino-U.S. sweetheart deals

Special to The Japan Times

HONG KONG — China's leader-in-waiting Vice President Xi Jinping will meet President Barack Obama in the White House on St. Valentine's Day, but unfortunately, neither leader has the political luxury for lovers' trysts. The best hope is that Obama and Xi will realize some personal chemistry and understand that they must take their countries away from their impending collision course, then pray that Americans are wise enough not to elect a Republican as president in November.

The awkward timing in a U.S. election year actively militates against a constructive outcome. There is something wrong with the political structures in both countries and in the international system, such as it is, that wastes so much time, money and energy on such meetings when they cannot achieve results. The G-20 meeting and the United Nations general assembly later this year, not to speak of endless European summits, will also demonstrate the same empty pomp.

Beijing's English mouthpiece, the China Daily, correctly outlines some of the problems on the American side of the relationship, noting that "China bashing is becoming ever-more frequent in this election year." Obama used his State of the Union address to single out China for alleged unfair trade practices and even before that had angered Beijing by his demarches in defense policy with plans for a beefed-up presence in Asia.

The newspaper also understands that if Obama makes life tough for China, the Republicans would probably be worse. Mitt Romney, still the Republican frontrunner, has "pledged to 'clamp down' on Beijing as a currency manipulator and has openly threatened a trade war," China Daily adds. China's deputy foreign minister, Cui Tiankai, correctly remarked this month that there is a "trust deficit" between the two countries.

Beijing conveniently forgets that the faults are not all on the American side. Besides long-standing controversial issues such China's manipulation of the yuan, theft of intellectual property and industrial espionage, support for North Korea and shelter for Pyongyang's and Tehran's nuclear programs, its defense of rogue regimes, such as Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe and Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, fresh repression in Tibet, and its domestic crackdown on freedom of expression, Beijing has recently become more assertive and protective of its rights as a great civilization and once and future mega-power.

Deng Xiaoping's foreign policy dictum, "Keep a low profile and achieve something," was quietly modified in 2009 by President Hu Jintao, but the revision rarely appears in the official media. At the end of December, according to M. Taylor Fravel of MIT, Gen. Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the general staff of the People's Liberation Army, made a speech reported in Jiefangjun Bao, the official paper of the PLA, giving the reformulated version that China should "uphold keeping a low profile and actively achieve something."

Taylor, one of America's most respected Sinologists, commented that publication of the report confirmed the revision and also suggested that there is a consensus between the military and Communist Party leadership on basic policy principles, including foreign policy.

Assertive academics and businessmen, who believe that China should not be kicked around or allow the West to dictate the terms of the diplomatic, political or economic debate, have tried to raise the country's low profile, and seem to be having some success.

Hu himself complained to Communist Party members that "international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of Westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration." Xi has changed the language in recognizing differences between China and the U.S. Previously, Beijing would have talked of "building strategic trust" and minimized and tried to smooth over differences; now the catchphrase is to "control and manage" differences.

Chinese commentators have urged a more muscular approach, complaining that Obama's renewed assertion that the U.S. is a Pacific power and switch of defense capabilities to the Asia-Pacific region are part of a plot to encircle China and the opening shots of a new "cold war."

All this means that China and the U.S. are on a potential collision course, even without Beijing joining Russia in a veto to prevent U.N. measures against the pariah regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The red rag before Beijing was clearly the suggestion of regime change in Damascus, even though that was deleted from the final watered-down resolution that failed because of the vetoes.

The veto was a sign of things to come. A more assertive China with growing worldwide interests will have to consider full-fledged military bases to protect supply and passage of its own trade and the safety of its people working abroad.

Cui claimed that the Sino-U.S. relationship is "too big to fail"; but now is not an easy time to fix it, especially when Obama is vulnerable to Republican taunts that he is too soft on China.

Who knows whether Obama will be in the White House next year? Mitt Romney has threatened to raise the stakes, promising that, "I will insist on a military so powerful that no one would ever think of challenging it." It beggars belief that a serious presidential candidate can make such an adolescently boastful assertion, especially when the mighty forces of the U.S. and NATO are bogged down in Afghanistan, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq cost more American lives than were lost in 9/11 — not to speak of an Iraqi death toll of 105,000 to more than a million, depending on who does the counting.

China itself is also in election year. Although Xi is party and military commission chief and president in waiting, there is still unsettled business, including the size and status of the central committee of the Politburo, with disputes still active, and candidates and their supporters fighting viciously over the spoils of high office.

Xi has a reputation of being more open and affable than the apparatchik Hu, but China's new fifth generation leaders will probably be consensus-driven, especially given the tensions between the elitists or "princelings" and the populists. In 2009 in Mexico, Xi was goaded to complain about, "a few foreigners, with full bellies, who have nothing better to do than try to point fingers at our country. ... China does not export revolution, hunger or poverty; nor does China cause you any headaches. What else do you want?"

May you live in interesting times: Obama and Xi will remember that it was an ancient Chinese curse.

Kevin Rafferty is editor in chief of PlainWords Media

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