Recent friction between China and the US has caused a lot of concern for the future of Sino-US relations among observers. The question is whether US President Barack Obama administration’s China policies really are becoming tougher as some observers say.
Some think the US has rebounded from the financial crisis and reduced its reliance on China, while at the same time it has gotten fed up with Beijing’s military and strategic expansion, and is therefore actively trying to come up with a plan to contain China. Others think containment is incompatible with globalization and is a misinterpretation of US policy.
The Obama administration of has not changed its China policies, and it continues to apply the carrot and the stick through its “smart power” diplomacy because it wants to find a way to perpetuate its position as the leader, even if it is unable to cooperate or reach compromises with China on major global issues.
Joseph Nye, the Harvard professor who coined the term smart power, says the concept is a combination of hard and soft power, and the crucial point is to combine the two in a way that they benefit both parties rather than create divisions between them. After his inauguration, Obama has relied on smart power diplomacy in a forceful attempt to remedy the damage to US soft power (its attraction) caused by his predecessor George W. Bush’s reliance on hard power (the ability to threaten and entice). This is why Obama has stressed listening, negotiation and contact as a way to mend the US’ international image and foreign relations.
US Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton has made four week-long visits to Asia since her appointment, a clear indication that the US intends to return focus to the region. The US has been quite successful in this endeavor, as is reflected by the fact that Clinton’s statement that the US is opposed to any country backing up any sovereignty claim with military force or the threat of military force won the support of 12 countries at the recent ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi.
Although Clinton never named a potential adversary, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪) picked up on the challenge and said Clinton’s speech was in fact an attack on China, and he publicly refuted the US’ “biased position.” On forums at the Xinhua news agency’s Web site, the word “smart” in “smart power” had been replaced by “clever and deceitful,” and users remained skeptical about Obama’s speech in Tokyo where he stressed that the US is not trying to contain China, and that China’s rise is helpful to international security and prosperity.
China sees the US’ smart power diplomacy as “clever and deceitful” diplomacy because it feels it is an empty phrase. In addition, it also feels the US needs Beijing to buy up US bonds to be able to handle the financial crisis, while China’s performance has been extraordinary. This is why China is merciless in its response to Clinton’s statement. On the one hand, it will not compromise when it comes to China’s core interests, and on the other hand, it will not lightly accept international responsibility.
This is also the reason why several of Obama’s attempts to use smart power have been rejected by China. Examples include: The joint declaration issued by Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) does not match the conclusion of the Copenhagen climate conference; when Obama wanted to follow up on the sale of arms to Taiwan by sending US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on a good will tour to China, the visit was rejected; when the US avoided directly condemning North Korea and instead held a joint military exercise with South Korea, Beijing protested and said the exercise threatened China’s national security; and when the US praised the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) and said it would facilitate regional peace, stability and prosperity, China stressed the importance of a US review of its arms sales to Taiwan.
These examples show clearly that Hu has shifted from late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) more low key foreign policy, toward the more assertive diplomacy of his predecessor Jiang Zemin (江澤民). China is now responding in a tough way to Obama’s smart foreign policy, making the US appear weak and Obama inept, so that China finally can take center stage on the international arena.
However, Beijing’s high profile highlights the fact that China is no different from any other country that has risen to international prominence. They all bide their time while creating space for themselves before they slowly begin to challenge the strong powers of their time and finally create a dominant position for themselves.
As a consequence of China’s disregard for Obama’s smart power diplomacy, there is now reason to talk of a China threat, and the US can claim both legitimacy and necessity when continuing its strategic deployments in the East Asian region in the post-cold war era.
Emerson Chang is director of the Department of International Studies at Nanhua University.
TRANSLATED BY PERRY SVENSSON
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