On June 1, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner delivered a speech at Peking University in China. Geithner’s appearance came only a week after North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test. It was also just before the twentieth anniversary of what China calls the June 4 Incident, but what the rest of the world knows as the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The timing will be relished by the Chinese leadership, as it sends the message that all is forgiven, whether it is Beijing’s protection of the Pyongyang regime’s military program, or its dismal human rights record. Wall Street still appears to be in charge of U.S. foreign policy, and as long as the smell of money is in the air, nothing else matters. From the Chinese perspective, the Marxist view of America is confirmed, and the rise of a vibrant new China destined for world leadership appears inevitable.
Indeed, Geithner told his audience “We want China to succeed and prosper” and that “China is already too important to the global economy not to have a full seat at the international table, helping to define the policies that are critical to the effective functioning of the international financial system.” He can make these statements because he still holds to a fundamental error, “We come together because we have shared interests and responsibilities.” It is this error, what political scientists call “mirror imaging,” that explains why American diplomats keep being disappointed by China’s lack of cooperation on North Korea and other issues.
It is the absurd idea, born originally from classical liberalism but reinforced by post-Cold War hubris, that Chinese thinking and values must be the same as American thinking and values since there is no alternative basis for harmony. But there is no foundation in observable behavior to support the notion that China will be happy to simply join the existing world order as a “responsible stakeholder” rather than work to overthrow what Chinese strategists constantly refer to as U.S. “hegemony” and reverse “a century of humiliation” at the hands of Western “imperialism.”
Consider Beijing’s behavior as host of the Six Party Talks. This multilateral forum was convened, from the American perspective, to show a common interest among China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and the United States in keeping North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. In October, 2002, North Korea admitted that it had been working on a secret atomic program in violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework that had tried to buy off Pyongyang’s military ambitions with “positive incentives” in the form of aid and trade. North Korea rejected all diplomatic overtures during the following months. It terminated the Agreed Framework, expelled UN weapons inspectors, reopened nuclear facilities, and withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
President George W. Bush had declared North Korea, Iran and Iraq the “axis of evil” in January 2002, but it was not until Iraq was invaded in April 2003 that the other rogue states took notice. North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Il went into hiding for nearly two months as the U.S. deployed additional combat aircraft to Northeast Asia to demonstrate to Pyongyang that it was not so tied down in Iraq that it could not act in the peninsula.
Beijing reacted very quickly, hosting a meeting between the U.S. and North Korea in April at which Pyongyang declared it already had atomic bombs in an effort to deter an American attack. By August, the talks had expanded to the Six Party configuration. Beijing declared the objective was to find a “peaceful diplomatic solution” to the North Korean problem in contrast to the Iraq “regime change” solution.
After every step forward North Korea has taken in testing its missiles and bombs, China has sought to limit the response of the United States and its allies, watering down UN resolutions, undermining sanctions and, above all, making sure that talks take the place of action. Beijing’s prime interest is the survival of North Korea. It will not allow any pressures to develop that could lead to its collapse.
Larry Wortzel, currently the vice-chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, drew on years of discussion with Chinese officials, intellectuals and military leaders in a paper delivered at the Army War College last year. He cited a statement by scholars in Shanghai in 2006 that “North Korean nuclear weapons were safeguarding China’s side door.” Wortzel also believes that “The likelihood is high that in the event of a collapse in North Korea, the PLA would be used to stabilize the situation and even to restore order.” One can assume a key part of that order would be to maintain a regime friendly to China. When the ailing Kim Jong Il passes from the scene, there could be a violent succession struggle. If a Chinese intervention could be carried out without any interference by South Korea, the U.S. or its allies, so much the better. North Korean nuclear weapons could paralyze outside reaction to turmoil in Pyongyang, allowing China free reign.
China may proclaim it favors the “denuclearization of the peninsula” and it may denounce North Korean actions, but this is deception. The final, operative paragraph is always the same, regardless of what has happened. Its latest use was immediately after the Memorial Day bomb test, "To safeguard peace and stability in Northeast Asia serves the common interests of all parties involved. The Chinese Government calls on all parties concerned to respond in a cool-headed and appropriate manner and persist in seeking a peaceful solution through consultation and dialogue." In other words, diplomats can say whatever they want, but their governments should take no action that would threaten the North Korean regime. Even the term “negotiation” is avoided, since that implies the pursuit of an outcome.
China has gotten exactly what it wanted from the Six Party Talks: the US-Japan-South Korean coalition has been paralyzed while North Korea has gotten stronger. Yet, if Chinese cooperation on the old issue of North Korea has been a fraud, consider the new area of supposed cooperation; climate change.
The Obama administration has placed a great deal of emphasis on environmental cooperation with China, as if the U.S. was trying to create a common enemy in “global warming” so as to form an alliance with Beijing that would overshadow the traditional geopolitical conflicts that divide the two nations. This was the message Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took to Beijing in February. It was also the focus of President Barack Obama’s comments when introducing Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr. as his choice for U.S. ambassador to Beijing. Gov. Huntsman is a believer in global warming and in a 2006 speech at Shanghai Normal University spoke of the need for China and the U.S. to work together on environmental issues.
China, however, has assumed an adversarial role at international meetings where climate change policies have been discussed. It has opposed any obligation being placed on developing countries to reduce industrial emissions or adopt alternative energy sources. It will do so again at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting June 1-12 in Bonn, Germany. This gathering is the key event leading to the grand Climate Change Conference scheduled December 6-18 in Copenhagen, Denmark. There, the draft of a new treaty to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol is to be drawn up.
On May 22, Beijing issued its vision of the Copenhagen draft, “Firstly, set quantified emission reduction targets for developed countries for the second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol; secondly, establish effective institutional arrangements to ensure that developed countries fulfill their commitments to provide technology, financial and capacity building support to developing countries; thirdly, enable developing countries to, take proper measures suited to their situation to adapt to and mitigate climate changes with the technology, financial and capacity building support from developed countries.” No targets are to be set for the developing countries, but “by 2020, as a mid-term target, developed countries as a group shall cut their emissions by at least 40% from the 1990 level.” Such a requirement would drive a mass migration of industry to China from America and Europe, furthering the transfer of wealth, and the means of producing wealth, that has powered China’s rise for the last 15 years.
At Peking University, Secretary Geithner said, “The structure of the Chinese economy will shift as domestic demand grows in importance, with a larger service sector, more emphasis on light industry, and less emphasis on heavy, capital intensive export and import-competing industries.” Geithner has no power to compel such a shift in Chinese policy, and clearly does not understand Beijing’s adherence to its growth strategy even when it is declared. In March, Li Gao, Director of Climate Change at the National Development and Reform Commission, came to Washington and insisted that China’s export sector be exempt from carbon emissions reductions in any post-Kyoto agreement.
Chinese leaders do not believe in the “global warming” hokum, but they do want to boost energy efficiency in a period of rising costs and reduce urban pollution for health reasons. President Obama wants to invest $150 billion over the next decade to create renewable energy sources and “green” technologies which can then be exported to create jobs in America and reduce the trade deficit. China, however, does not want to import the products of technology; it wants the technology itself transferred so local firms can manufacture what is needed. This is what it is demanding in UN forums.
China imposes high tariffs (up to 35 percent according to World Trade Organization data) on all but two of the 43 “climate-friendly” technologies identified by the World Bank. To reach the Chinese market, firms will have to locate their factories behind these tariff walls, producing in China to sell in China. This has been standard Beijing policy across all industries. American firms are starting to wake up to the fact that general economic cooperation based on mutual benefits has also been a deception.
The June 8 issue of Time magazine features an article by Justin Fox entitled “The End of the Big Business-China Love Affair.” The thrust is that the lure of a big emerging market for American-made goods in China is bring revealed as the mirage anyone with a realistic assessment of Chinese policy should have known it would be. “The Chinese government has begun turning a cold shoulder to Western corporations hoping to cash in on its consumers,” reports Fox. Chinese policy has been based on joint ventures with foreign firms that gave local firms technology and expertise that could be used to build their own capabilities in the domestic market. Foreign firms were kept fenced in and dependent on exporting. Import-substitution and export industries will remain key elements in Chinese growth. Beijing is never going to allow foreign capitalists to dominate any part of the national economy. The legacy of being divided into spheres of influence and having their ports forced open to trade during the age of imperialism fills the Chinese with a “never again” determination to control their own fate.
Fox postulates, “American corporations may come to see China as a rival — meaning they'll be less likely to fight congressional crackdowns on trade.” If he proves right, then a major obstacle to thinking—and acting, seriously about China as a strategic rival will also be reduced. The use of economic leverage on Chinese trade to force Beijing’s hand on North Korea, for example, has been fiercely resisted by business groups. Indeed, the argument has run the other way. Beijing cannot be pushed on Pyongyang because it would retaliate against American firms operating in China.
Geithner’s predecessor was Henry Paulson, former CEO of Goldman Sachs who had promoted financial deals with Beijing. He launched the Strategic Economic Dialogue to take control of China policy and head off the growing concern in Congress and at the Pentagon about Beijing’s ambitions. But as Fox notes, “The U.S. investment banks that have been China's biggest boosters are not the powers they were two years ago.” President Obama has broadened the SED to include the State Department in partnership with the Treasury. This is an important reform, but Secretary Clinton has not yet brought anything to the table that would strengthen the U.S. posture.
President Obama does not want any new confrontations in Asia or anywhere else. He will continue to embrace the worn out sophistry of “shared interests” with China, appeasing the Beijing leadership to make it appear plausible. And China’s rise will continue unchecked.