[Overseas view] China pushes backAmid the thawing atmosphere between the Chinese and American militaries, their navies have encountered some glitches lately.
The Okinawa-based Kitty Hawk strike group seemed to have been refused permission to make a port call when approaching Hong Kong recently, and two other U.S. naval vessels, including a minesweeper, met a similar situation around the same time.
Chinese authorities eventually reversed their decision on grounds of humanitarian consideration, seeing the hundreds of spouses of American soldiers who flew to Hong Kong, waiting for family reunions on their Thanksgiving Day holiday. However, by then the carrier force had left for its home port and decided to sail through the Taiwan Strait, which it had earlier tried to avoid.
This has created a controversy about what was behind the snub. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman has refuted the explanation of a “misunderstanding,” sending the message that there must be a deeper reason. Mr. Liu Jianchao implied an indirect link to the recent “erroneous behavior” by the United States, such as awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama and selling Taiwan 12 American anti-submarine aircraft and antimissile batteries.
The U.S. side has expressed its dissatisfaction in a controlled way. The top brass has termed the Chinese action “not in the first principle” in maritime affairs, as the minesweeper was vulnerable to an approaching storm. President Bush tried to seek an explanation from the visiting Chinese foreign minister. Some think tank analysts have claimed that this event will cast a long-term shadow over the true intentions of China’s rise.
International relations resemble human relations. In the equation of China-U.S. relations, China is on the defense as its renegade province of Taiwan has been receiving weaponry from the U.S. The Taiwanese authority certainly no longer aspires to reclaim the communist mainland simply through American weapons assistance, but such weapons have served to deter the mainland from achieving unification on its own terms, at least so far.
Despite the American weapons, the mainland could still handle the Taiwan issue its own way as long as foreign forces don’t directly interfere. However, the Taiwan Relations Act has foreclosed such possibilities.
Anything is now possible ― intelligence support, weapons replenishing, direct fire from off the battlefield, American manpower entering the war zone on one extreme or sitting idle on the other extreme ― if the U.S. feels a military contingency in the Straits undermines its interests in the region.
To strategists in Beijing, sustaining a sound economic and trade partnership with America serves China’s topmost interests, as long as Taiwan doesn’t push for a de jure independence. For its own sake, China “normalized” relations with the US in 1979.
But this normalization has borne a severe consequence: It was reached before the U.S. agreed to sever its weapons sales to Taiwan.
To many in China this deal was unjustified: before the U.S. promises not to sell weapons to Taiwan, China should not establish an official diplomatic relationship with it, as China has been doing with all other countries. Weapons illegally entering Taiwan without the approval of the Beijing authority, the sole legitimate government of China including Taiwan Province, should be stopped.
China made the tough strategic decision to “normalize” relations with the U.S. at a high cost and could have left the impression that the Chinese are strategically minded. As long as they are weak, they can be unprincipled when it comes to security.
Therefore, in their view, when China doesn’t welcome the U.S. port call, as recently took place, China is not conforming to international rules.
But the true supreme international rule is that a sovereign state shall not sell weapons to a renegade province of another sovereign state, no matter if the latter is a communist or capitalist country.
To exercise certain restraints in the sale of some categories of weapons to Taiwan at this time doesn’t define the generic sale as virtuous, yet Washington is still pushing the anti-sub plane sale to Taiwan.
China’s mistake was “normalizing” relations with a country that insists on the “right” to sell weapons to Taiwan as a means of disallowing Beijing to attain its sovereignty.
It is China that has spoiled an American military that has developed the notion that it has both the right to sell weapons to Taiwan and the right to visit Hong Kong at the same time.
Therefore, China is learning to be smarter in using refusal as a means of expression. But, the strategic background has changed ― China no longer needs the U.S. to help counter the Soviet threat, and Taiwan has pushed for independence. China may feel a new strategic impetus to assert its own legitimate rights.
Given the sea change in the international environment and respective national growth since China and the U.S. “normalized” relations, the two countries have to review their relations in a new strategic perspective: new threats, transborder ones or Taiwanese independence still bind them together.
While the U.S. ought to respect China more ― not only for China’s rise, but on principle ― China, as a new major power, needs to demonstrate more confidence and skill in implementing mature, well-coordinated policy making and in taking action.
The two giants need to truly normalize their relations.
*The writer is an international relations professor and deputy director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.
By Shen Dingli