The China Challenge
by Josh Frydenberg and Greg Hunt, 16 March 1999
The deterioration in Sino-US relations should be of great concern to Australia and its neighbours. It threatens to undermine an already fragile regional balance.
The breakdown can be attributed in large part to domestic political imperatives in Washington and Beijing that now drive this key bilateral relationship. Both countries have traded strategy for political gain.
In Washington, Presidential aspirants jockeying for position, remain conscious of the label 'China appeaser'. With members from both sides of the political fence calling for a more hard line stance, the Clinton Administration's policy of 'constructive engagement' is being overshadowed.
The most recent manifestation of this climate change was the Administration's decision to veto the sale of a $450m commercial satellite to Chinese interests, this is despite the Administration heavily promoting such contracts in recent years. Such an about-face by the White House has played right into the hands of a hawkish Pentagon and Republican dominated Congress.
Recent revelations of Chinese involvement in a Congressional bribery scandal as well as the illegal transfer of sensitive nuclear weapon technology from the US have fuelled the fire.
In Beijing too, the domestic agenda is paramount.
Marxism has been superseded by economic competence and nationalism as the dominant ideologies.
Premier Zhu Rongji in his annual address to Parliament acknowledged that the economy was in 'disarray' and that in the face of rising unemployment and pervasive corruption the population is restless.
In response to deepening civic unrest the Government has decided to play its nationalism card, in the process re-igniting its Middle Kingdom mentality.
In particular, it has raised the stakes on Taiwan. Not content to confine itself to the rhetorical denunciations of the Island's recently elected independence movement, China is, according to a recent Pentagon report, amassing ballistic missiles off the Taiwanese coast. The last time such a buildup took place was early 1996 when China fired missiles into Taiwanese waters causing the US Navy to send its 7th fleet to the area.
Beijing only recently used the veto it holds as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to prevent the continuation of the effective peacekeeping mission in Macedonia, merely because, that country had extended diplomatic recognition to Taiwan.
With Taiwan being such an important issue, China is not prepared to remain idle while its ballistic missile based military superiority over the island is put in jeopardy by America's proposed theatre missile defence (TMD) project. Unlike the controversy surrounding the sale of US F-15's to Taiwan, TMD could irrevocably affect the long term military equation. As a result, TMD will become the principal issue in the US and China relationship.
In the South China Sea too, China is using its military muscle to intimidate and press its expansionist claims. Citing 13th century maps as its guide, China believes it has historic title over the entire Spratly Islands. It has dismissed cross-ownership claims by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan. These ASEAN states are under no illusions as to the seriousness of the issue - China having used force to press similar claims to the Paracel Islands against Vietnam in 1974, and to the Mischief Reef against the Philippines in 1988.
While the Chinese leadership may be relying on the issues of Taiwan and the Spratlys as devices for rallying its people, it is also clamping down on those who seek to challenge it.
Severe prison terms were recently handed down to three pro-democracy activists who were involved in setting up the China Democracy Party (CDP). With the latest US State Department Report rebuking China for its 'continued...and well documented human rights abuses', Chinese actions in this regard are becoming an ever more significant thorn in Sino-US ties.
The challenge for the US and ultimately for its allies including Australia, is to formulate a well calibrated policy framework that allows it to press its concerns with Chinese practices particularly in the fields of human rights, trade and security but in a way that does not threaten the relationship as a whole.
While democratic reforms in China may be the aim, the relationship must not be contingent upon it.
Containing a regional hegemon like China simply will not work. Not only would it be impossible to put together a workable coalition, but isolation will be a force for nationalism, encouraging a reactionary response from Beijing.
The response must be a dual policy of engagement with security.
Engagement would see the focus on confidence building measures, like bilateral visits such as Jiang Zemin's and Clinton's reciprocal visits in 1997 and 1998 respectively, cooperation in international forums such as America's support for China's admission into the World Trade Organisation and open dialogue on outstanding issues, such as the ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum) workshop on competing claims in the South China Sea.
Security would see the US maintain its heavy military presence in the region and its continued opposition to the unification of Taiwan via the use of force.
The twin headed policy of engagement and security is not only mutually reinforcing but also mutually exclusive. For without security, states will lack the confidence to engage, and ultimately without engagement we act to undermine our own security.
Ultimately, it is time for the US and China to take a step backwards. Each has provoked the other. Without a clear commitment to maintaining the relationship ahead of domestic political concerns, Sino-US friction will continue to make our region inherently less secure.
Josh Frydenberg has recently completed a Masters in International Relations at Oxford University.
Greg Hunt has worked for the United Nations Centre for Human Rights, and he taught International Human Rights at Yale while completing a Masters in International Relations.