Monday, November 26, 2007

(Mis)Understanding China

A Wall Street Journal editorial on November 26, 2007, complained of China’s refusal to allow the USS Kitty Hawk and its carrier battle group to dock in Hong Kong on Thanksgiving day. China relented a day later after the fleet was on its way to Japan. The Journal charged that China stole Thanksgiving family dinners from American sailors as 290 crew members of families had flown into Hong Kong to meet them.

On this action, the Journal proclaimed that China is not a reliable military partner. On what basis did the Journal believe that China was a reliable military partner? Is China to accede to every U.S. request or dictum, without the freedom to change its mind in response to U.S. actions such as selling military upgrades to Taiwan’s missile defense system?

The United States has its military, political, economic, and cultural interests around the world, with its military forces deployed in Korea, Japan, Germany, the Middle East, and elsewhere. China also has its interests, but to this point has deployed few military forces outside the homeland.

For the better part of four thousand years, China was the preeminent power in Asia. Compared with the West, it was much further advanced until the Industrial Revolution. From the Opium War in 1840 until the Communist armies seized control of the mainland in 1949, China suffered considerable harm and loss of dignity from several "unequal treaties" that gave Western nations control of China’s trade and extraterritorial rights in several trading ports. China has since fully recovered its sovereignty along with Hong Kong, and seeks to reunite Taiwan with the mainland. It is rapidly developing a modern economy and military. The country is beginning to flex its muscles, gradually but steadily, until it secures parity with the United States.

Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson, other U.S. government officials, and Members of Congress routinely advise China on what it must do and how it must behave on a host of issues, from the exchange rate of its currency to human rights. These suggestions are invariably rejected as China pursues its own course. China is no longer a land of coolies and compradors serving Western interests. How would the American government and people respond if China routinely advised the United States on what it must do and how it must behave? Hectoring China is likely to be increasingly unproductive as it gains in strength and influence.

It is natural that Americans would have a U.S.-centric view of the world, choosing to judge others on the basis of American values and interests. The same applies to China, perhaps more so, given that its civilization is over four thousand years old. American officials and journalists had better get used to an increasingly assertive China and give serious thought on how to manage the relationship between the U.S. and China. The Chinese will not take kindly to being lectured on their proper code of conduct.

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