Be Like Water

At the close of last night’s post, I indicated that I believed that China and the United States’ points of view would shape the agenda of the Security Council in coming years. The truth of this goes beyond the halls of UN Headquarters, which is enough of a truism that I suppose it was another reason I have not written extensively about Sino-American relations.

Moving forward, however, that relationship does deserve a closer look, particularly the ways in which the two will interact directly in coming years. Despite American fears, the People’s Republic will continue to mature and grow into its role, and considerations need to be made as far as what kind of relationship Washington wants with Beijing. Further, in pursuing its own policy goals, the US needs to learn to be like water, to take a page from the Tao: fluid in the path it takes but always, inexorably, flowing towards the same path.

The direct relationship between the US and China will most certainly show times of strain and pressure on both sides as the years pass, and that is to be expected considering the maturation of China as a power-player. China is growing weary of being expected to be left on the short-end of negotiations at all times.  At the same time, the United States has forgotten how to yield on issues without looking, and feeling, weakened by the experience. “Saving face” is an essential concept in China, allowing even the losers in an experience to come away with a salvaged sense of pride. The United States’ policymakers and negotiators would do well to keep this in mind in the future.

For example, in the situation brewing with Iran, the United States has pushed forward on stronger sanctions, including a new unilateral set that would also punish financial institutions that do business with Iran’s Central Bank. China has so far resisted US calls to join in the sanctions, but an editorial in the Global Times’ English edition goes further:

China should not bend to US pressure. It needs to come up with deliberate countermeasures, and show deterrence to an arrogant US. The unilateral sanctions were levied under its own amended Iran Sanctions Act, rather than any UN Security Council resolution.

Iran’s oil resources and geopolitical value are crucial to China. Chinese companies have the freedom to engage in legal business with Iran’s energy sector. It is worth taking on some troubles and even paying a certain price to safeguard this principle.

China should be confident. The US, facing a tough economy and the coming presidential election, cannot afford a trade war with China. It is not set on having a showdown with China just to impose sanctions on Iran. China has adopted anti-sanction measures against the US before, and this time China should demonstrate the same toughness.

Rather than pushing unnecessarily on Beijing to alter its stance, the US would do better to encourage China to continue its trade with Tehran. The reasoning behind this is simple. China has been putting its own form of pressure on Iran in the form of extracting concessions in price on Iranian oil; as one of a dwindling number of buyers, Iran can’t afford to stand strong against these price declines, in turn further weakening its economy, a Pyrrhic victory. In allowing China an exception to the sanctions on states dealing with Iran, China and the US both benefit. Rather than playing out a zero-sum game, both parties need to find areas of commonality so that the actual disagreements with wide-reaching impact aren’t marred by the small stuff.

Seeking accord is becoming more necessary as China’s influence continues to rise on the course to superpower status. The superpower competition on the horizon will be far different from that of the Cold War. Rather than a battle for supremacy with existential implications on the line, this jockeying for power will be an extension of the economic battles that face the two. China wants greater access to natural resources and new markets for its exports, particularly once it moves beyond its current low-tech production and comes into its own in the high-tech sphere where the US has traditionally dominated.

Indeed, even in the event that China comes out the dominant power later this century, it isn’t clear that Beijing will undertake the sort of revisionist sweep that the Soviet Union surely would have if it had come out on top in the Cold War and the United States certainly has.

America, at least in theory, prefers that other countries share its values and act like Americans. China can only fear a world where everybody acts like the Chinese. So, in a future dominated by China, the Chinese will not set the rules; rather, they will seek to extract the greatest possible benefit from the rules that already exist.

Rather than fear of a cultural domination or an usurping of American ‘ideals’, the primary reason for American analysts fear over China’s rise is the idea that a more powerful China can and will challenge the United States’ global projection of military power, which in turn threatens US economic interests in the areas described earlier. The US’ power is a combination of its money and missiles, and a threat to either of them sends shivers through the spine of Washington. What’s more, threats from China not only include nuclear weapons in the equation, as with the Soviet Union, but also newer weaponry and spheres of combat, such as offensive cyber-capabilities and anti-satellite technology. Both sides surely have these capacities, though neither speaks of them publicly.

During the Cold War, Mutually Assured Destruction promised that the only way to prevent the launch of nuclear attack was the guarantee that doing so would result in a total loss by both sides. Only through this deterrence were the US and the USSR able to avoid nuclear holocaust.  The National Interest has published one of the most intriguing paths forward for the US and China that I’ve seen, a moderation of this doctrine that expands the idea into the domains of cyber- and space-based combat:

Confidence that such pledges would be honored, even in crisis, ultimately rests on the bedrock of mutual deterrence. Knowing that they cannot defend against retaliation (due to offense dominance), neither the United States nor China should be the first to employ nuclear, antisatellite or cyber weapons. The two should supplement strategic no-first-use understandings with confidence-building measures such as missile-launch notification, greater transparency about nuclear arsenals, and consultation and cooperation on cyber threats from other states and nonstate actors.

The devil lies in the details and definition of any proposed mutual strategic restraint. Would nonphysical interference with satellites be forbidden? Yes. Would cyber crime and cyber espionage be covered? No, only destructive attacks on critical networks. Would Chinese and U.S. armed forces be precluded from interfering with military computer networks during armed conflict? No, though tactical cyber war must be tightly controlled by political leaders to avoid escalation. Would allies, e.g., Japan and South Korea, be covered by the pledge not to initiate strategic attacks? Absolutely.

The sort of high-level talks that would lead to the acceptance of such an agreement, talks based around strategic imperatives rather than singular issues, need to become more frequent in the coming months and years. Currently, there’s no guarantee that China would sign on board to such a proposal, nor that the United States would push forward with it. But the fact is, we can’t continue to treat China as the lesser partner in this ‘Group of Two’.

My greatest fear in mitigating tensions between the two is that a new, harsher China policy will be installed next January. It would be the absolute worst time for the US to push hard on the PRC, as new leadership will be reaffirming its power after a recent handover in the Politburo. In order to prevent conflict in the coming decades, the United States, no matter who’s in the White House, is going to need to learn to be flexible enough in its China policy to allow for greater give in its management of China’s rise, preventing the rigidity that would provoke a crumbling of ties, running counter to the US’ long-term gain.

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