Like anywhere else, the politics of the People's Republic runs along two tracks. There are the issues that policy is meant to address and do something about. Then there is the presentation of these policies. Policy and presentation go hand in hand. Strong policies but poor presentation lead to governments underselling their work and getting no credit. Good presentation and poor policies are even more calamitous, leading to the deadly criticism that an administration is all talk and no action.
What would happen if the United States decides to sell its new F-35 Lightning II fighter to Taiwan? The fictionalized scenario below, based on a careful analysis of the Chinese leadership, attempts to answer that question. March 2, 2017: A Taiwanese fighter jet on a routine patrol collides with a Chinese drone and crashes into the South China Sea; the pilot is killed. In response, the Republic of China Air Force, which for some time has been asking for upgraded planes, presses for a new arms package from America. Despite promising to maintain peace and stability in cross-Strait relations a little over a year ago in her victory speech, Tsai Ing-Wen, Taiwan's president, is faced with growing pressure to respond strongly. A concerned Legislative Yuan authorizes major defense budget increases (overcoming budget difficulties) aimed at acquiring the F-35. Eager to signal that the rebalance she spearheaded in the Obama administration is returning in full force, newly elected president Hillary Clinton (following the advice of hawkish media commentators) directs the Defense Department to sell Taipei fifty F-35s. The sale is made, despite severe protestations from Beijing. How is a humiliated China likely to respond?
Sungtae "Jacky" Park is research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations. In February, the United States and South Korea decided to begin official discussions on deploying the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on the Korean Peninsula. In response, Chinese Ambassador to South Korea Qiu Guohong said that deployment of the system could destroy the Beijing-Seoul relationship "in an instant." The floor leader of South Korea's ruling Saenuri party, Won Yoo-cheol, calling Qiu's remarks "rude," said that they "disregarded the sovereignty and the security of the Republic of Korea." While some analysts see China's blunt position on this issue as a way to drive a wedge in the U.S.-Korea alliance, Beijing's motivations are in fact defensive. China's leadership is concerned about THAAD at the strategic level and sees the system as part of a broader U.S. strategy to contain China.
The great Chinese strategist Sun Tzu, counseled, "Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting." At its core, this means placing your enemy in such a disadvantageous position that he comes to believe it is useless to resist. In modern military parlance this is known as achieving decisive "positional advantage." In the spirit of Sun Tzu, China continues militarizing islands, some artificially created, in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, where the People's Liberation Army has deployed advanced fighter jets, radars and missiles. China's near-term goal is to establish positional advantage over Southeast Asian nations. This is an important step in its long-term objective of shifting the military balance so decisively against them that they lose faith in their American partner and accommodate themselves to a new regional order dictated from Beijing.
The central pillar of America's predominance in world affairs in the past seven decades is the Unites States' ability to maintain and lead a system of alliances. In the Asia-Pacific region, the US-led alliance centered on the Washington-Tokyo-Seoul axis of democracies has been a credible guarantee of peace and stability. With China's rise as a militarized revisionist state bent on changing the status quo, the US-led alliance is facing its gravest challenge since its formation. Yet America's response to the challenge has been anemic and indolent, primarily as a misguided China policy that puts the premium on engagement without confrontation, a policy that has split the unity of the alliance and emboldened China.
In 2005, then-Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick used the term "responsible stakeholder" to address how China should wield its influence in the coming future. In his remarks, he classified the U.S.-China relationship as one that must be built on not only shared interests but shared values. A decade later, how has China contributed positively to the international system and met U.S. expectations as a responsible stakeholder? Going forward, what challenges, changes, and concerns will shape China's developing role in global and regional affairs?
China's President Xi Jinping will meet once again with President Obama at the end of March on the margins of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. This will be President Obama's only bilateral meeting with any of the 52 heads of state and government attending the summit, so it will be a sign of respect for Xi and an indication of how important President Obama considers the U.S. relationship with China (the subject of a new paper of mine).
I was very skeptical about last September's US-China "agreement" in which China pledged that it would not "conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information, with the intent of providing competitive advantages to companies or commercial sectors." President Obama seemed skeptical too. During the press conference with China's President Xi that announced the cyber agreement, Obama said: "What I've said to President Xi and what I say to the American people is the question now is, are words followed by actions. And we will be watching carefully to make an assessment as to whether progress has been made in this area."
On March 5, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke to the Shanghai delegates to the National People's Congress (NPC) session in Beijing. China's top leaders use these side meetings to convey policy guidance on a range of issues, and Xi used this particular one to offer his perspective on relations with Taiwan. There has been some nervousness in the wake of the January 16 elections, which swept the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to power in both the executive and legislative branches. Because the Beijing government has always suspected that the fundamental objective of the DPP is to permanently separate Taiwan from China, observers were waiting expectantly to hear what Xi would have to say about Taiwan.
The West sees China's rise as a challenge to its hegemony. For the Chinese, this is merely the restoration of the natural order of things—of China as the world's largest economy and the center of the world. What makes the West particularly nervous is that China has shattered two important misconceptions: first, the expectation that as China modernized, it would become increasingly Western; second, the idea that single-party rule by the Communist Party of China would inevitably give way to demands for Western-style democracy. Many in the West thought that China would be integrated into the Western economic and political order, as Japan was after World War II. But that's not how the story has unfolded. Moving forward, we should expect continued assertion and pursuit of its interests by China—both in its neighborhood and on the world stage.