China: an Indispensable Enemy?

The idea that we need an “enemy” is resurfacing amongst some military, media, and think tank types. All of whom think that confrontation with China is in America’s interest. Why?

I vividly remember going to a U.S.-Sino relations conference here in Washington during the Bush II era where a Chicago University professor predicted that America and China were heading for war and we should prepare for it.  I was seated at a table with some representatives from the Chinese Embassy including military attaches and I could feel the sense of tension and disbelief at how stupid they felt the statement was and how it only contributed to a counterproductive self-fulfilling prophecy. That may have been just what the speaker wanted.

The problem has been compounded by the unfortunate tendency for hawkish Americans to call countries that we have problems with our “enemy.”  This includes countries such as Cuba, Russia, and China. While each has serious problems in terms of democracy, governance, and an adversarial approach to the outside world, calling them the “enemy” serves no purpose except to shore up support for the equally hawkish counterparts within these countries.

Recently, Walter Isaacson, the Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors that oversees US official media for foreign audiences said his organization needs more money to fight its enemies. Though he should know better, he explicitly included Russia, Iran, Venezuela and China onto this list. This is what happens when fear-mongers wave the bloody shirt to justify increased funding to their projects.  It certainly did not help our public diplomacy effort amongst those countries. Fortunately, Mr. Isaacson later retracted his maladroit statement.  He should be a leader in seeking constructive dialogue rather than confrontation.

Dealing with China is a prime example where we seriously need to do rethink our national security approach.  Our relationship with China has no silver “bullet”.  In this case, war can only serve those who desire global instability, conflict, and mutual destruction. Here is a case where total and intense engagement across a wide range of issues and differences is indispensable. Broad public diplomacy efforts, especially in multilateral venues, bilateral meetings, and wide exchanges of people, make the most sense.

This is not a zero-sum game; cooperative programs can result in a “win-win” situation for both sides in the short term and more importantly the long-term. Yet too often we and they have forgotten this core objective in our misguided policies and actions. Such areas need to include world trade, climate change, energy security, non-proliferation, confidence building measures, etc.

The media spotlight has been shining on the meeting between Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie on the sidelines of the ASEAN defense ministers meeting in Hanoi on October 12th.  There are a lot of real problems that we need to work through with China. Frankly, most are economic and financial issues. Some have to do with regional issues such as jurisdiction in the South China Sea, Taiwan, and elsewhere. This tension escalated with the recent arrest of a Chinese fishing vessel by the Japanese in disputed island territories.  It resulted in an export ban of “rare earth” metals, important materials in many modern electronics, from China to Japan.

But these issues have been brewing for a long time and they continue to be exacerbated by conservative elements in both America and in China. The danger is how to make sure it does not get out of hand. The rise of China is real but its trajectory and purpose can be benign rather than negative.

Gates has recently highlighted China as an area of global concern and suggested that these problems be solved through “multilateral institutions in order to confront the most important security challenges in the region.

Another positive development is that Gates accepted an invitation, by the Chinese defense minister, to visit Beijing early next year. Prior to this invitation, China had suspended high level military visits over U.S. arms sale to Taiwan. Despite these gains, more engagement is needed on the economic level.

While Obama has a host of challenges, most not of his own making, he needs to focus more intently on dealing with China during his next two years. But it “takes two to tango” so any overtures made by Obama need to be reciprocated by the Chinese. They need to understand that there can be no victory, for either side, in any serious conflict.

One thought on “China: an Indispensable Enemy?

  1. b-jackson October 26, 2010 / 5:08 AM

    Wrong. China surely has been behaving like an enemy and should be viewed as such. It’s time to quit pretending they’re not a hostile power.

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