China Flexes Its Muscles

China Aid Association

China Flexes Its Muscles
Published  01/4/2008 |

The Wall Street JournalBy GORDON G. CHANG
January 2, 2008

The U.S. Navy said it was “befuddled” by Beijing’s last-minute November denial of a long-arranged port call for the Kitty Hawk carrier group in Hong Kong. This turndown was on top of China’s refusal to provide shelter for two U.S. minesweepers seeking refuge from a storm, and its rejection of a routine visit for a frigate, the Reuben James. The Air Force also received a “no” for a regular C-17 flight to resupply the American consulate in Hong Kong.
The immediate causes of these rebuffs may be American arms sales to Taiwan, which China regards as sovereign territory, and the award of a congressional medal to the Dalai Lama, with whom Beijing has had a multi-decade spat. But so many turndowns suggest the decisions were made at the highest levels of the Chinese central government — and at a time when senior leaders are reorienting the country’s foreign policy. Washington’s relations with Beijing, in short, appear headed for increasing disagreement and tension.
Deng Xiaoping, who turned China away from Maoist revolution, believed that the country should “bide time” and keep a low profile in international affairs. Deng wanted Beijing to “seek cooperation and avoid confrontation,” especially with the U.S. China, after a series of disastrous episodes like the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen massacre, needed a peaceful environment and the help of outsiders to rebuild its shattered economy.
Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, followed this general approach even though he wanted Beijing to pursue his “big country” ambitions. Mr. Jiang desired recognition for China’s growing status, but he saw his nation working cooperatively with the U.S. and its allies as partners.
Current President Hu Jintao has shifted China in a new direction. Like Mr. Jiang, he believes that the country should assert itself. But unlike his predecessor, he seems to think that China should actively work to restructure the international system to be more to Beijing’s liking. In short, the current leader appears to see his country mostly working against the U.S.
The shape of China’s grand strategy became apparent after a series of meetings in Beijing in the second half of 2006. In August, the Communist Party convened its Central Work Conference on Foreign Affairs. The meeting, the culmination of a half-year, top-to-bottom review of the country’s external policies, brought together for the first time all members of the Politburo, provincial governors and Party secretaries, the State Council and central government ministers, about 60 ambassadors and 30 other diplomats, and key military officers with foreign affairs responsibilities.
Significantly, the public summary of the meeting did not include references to the invariably cited “bide time” strategy of Deng Xiaoping — an indication of a fundamental change in thinking. Adopting the new tone, that same month Beijing’s top U.N. diplomat in Geneva, Sha Zukang, told the U.S. to “shut up” about China’s military buildup.
Later in the year, senior leaders met one or more times to confirm the new foreign policy direction. As veteran China watcher Willy Lam has noted, Mr. Hu and the leadership decided “to make a clean break with Deng’s cautious axioms and instead, embark on a path of high-profile force projection.”
Mr. Hu’s reorientation of foreign policy is a consequence of his increasing reliance on the People’s Liberation Army as a political base inside the Party. Since the middle of 2004, he stepped up efforts to court senior generals for support of his efforts to assert supremacy over Jiang Zemin, who has been clinging to power and blocking some of his initiatives. The military, for example, appears to have been behind Mr. Hu’s partially successful effort, in the run-up to last year’s 17th Party Congress, to pick his own successor.
It seems that at the massive conclave, held once every five years, Mr. Hu obtained the assistance of the more hawkish officers of the PLA in return for accelerating increases in military spending, promoting some of them to senior positions — especially Gen. Chen Bingde to be the chief of general staff — and steering the country toward a more assertive posture toward other nations in general, and Taiwan in particular.
There are several other incidents consistent with China’s new assertive posture. In October 2006, a Chinese submarine for the first time surfaced in the middle of an American carrier group. This episode, occurring in the Philippine Sea southeast of Okinawa, was an obvious warning to the U.S. Navy to stay away. And in January of last year, the PLA, in an unmistakable display of military power, destroyed one of China’s old weather satellites with a ground-based missile.
Beijing’s military has also started to boast about its new weapons and war-fighting capabilities. Peace Mission 2007, cooperative military exercises in Central Asia in August, was China’s first large-scale foreign military deployment, and recent military maneuvers, apparently rehearsals to take Taiwan and disputed islands in the South China Sea, were remarkable in scope and sophistication.
China’s new ambitions have been confirmed by Hong Yuan, a military strategist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who noted a significant departure from Beijing’s prior posture. China, he said in October, intended to project force in areas “way beyond the Taiwan Strait.”
China’s military assertiveness has been matched by tougher diplomacy. Last year, a series of high-level meetings showed that Beijing has moved closer to Moscow to cement their “friendship for generations” and confirm their opposition to American initiatives, especially to stop the Iranian nuclear program.
China’s sustained campaign against German Chancellor Angela Merkel for meeting the Dalai Lama in September is also notably intense. China even threatened military and political responses over economic disputes — such as those relating to market barriers and intellectual property piracy — at last month’s session of the “Strategic Economic Dialogue,” the high-level talks between the U.S. and China.
The Kitty Hawk port call fits into this pattern. In the past, this snub would have merely been the product of petulance. Today, it is another indication of a change in China’s approach to the world.
Last month, Washington and Beijing agreed to put the Kitty Hawk and similar incidents behind them. Now, the challenge for the U. S. is to recognize that Chinese attitudes have turned a corner, and to craft new policies in response.
Mr. Chang is the author of “The Coming Collapse of China” (Random House, 2001).


China Aid Contacts
Rachel Ritchie, English Media Director
Cell: (432) 553-1080 | Office: 1+ (888) 889-7757 | Other: (432) 689-6985
Email: [email protected] 
Website: www.chinaaid.org

Scroll to Top