Washington’s sway in Asia is challenged by China

The Asia that Condoleezza Rice is surveying this week on her first trip to
the region as US secretary of state is changing so quickly that judgments on
regional politics risk being outdated as soon as they are made. But Asian
and US observers can agree on two things without fear of contradiction:
Chinese power is on the rise, and the US, although the world’s only
superpower, is in danger of losing its grip as the unchallenged arbiter of
Asian security.

Nearly four years ago, the overthrow of the Islamist Taliban regime in
Afghanistan gave the US a bridgehead in previously hostile territory in
central Asia. But since then President George W. Bush has paid the
diplomatic price in Asia for focusing almost exclusively on Iraq and the
Middle East.

For those who favour a strong US presence in Asia and around the world, it
was unlucky that the “war on terror” coincided with China’s re-emergence as
a regional and perhaps an international power. Beijing, its influence
enhanced by a fast-growing economy that has fuelled an export-led recovery
across Asia, has not hesitated to fill the vacuum left by US inattention.

China has made friends in places as far apart as south-east Asia, India,
Latin America and Africa, often in the quest for oil and other natural
resources to fuel the Chinese industrial revolution. “China has been very
successful in terms of extending its influence,”says Bates Gill, a China
analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“China has smartly turned to where its real strengths currently lie, which
are not in military power but in diplomacy – you could even say a kind of
‘soft power’.”

The Bush administration – belatedly, say some of its critics – has now begun
to respond, after three years of leaving China to its own devices in
exchange for Beijing’s acquiescence in the invasions of Afghanistan and
Iraq. At the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency and in Congress
there is renewed talk of China as a threat and a strategic competitor, just
as there was in the campaign leading up to Mr Bush’s first election victory
in 2000.

“There is a simmering anxiety, a resentful understanding or realisation that
the US – due to its own military over-reach, its excesses – has been taken
advantage of by China,” says Minxin Pei, a China expert at the
Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The view at the US State Department, however, is much more sanguine than at
the Pentagon. Instead of focusing on China’s military modernisation,
officials emphasise the country’s transformation from hardline communist
state into a successful and broadly capitalist economy over the past 25
years. “We regard China as a co-operative player and often a partner,” says
a senior State Department official in Washington, describing “engagement” as
the watchword of the US approach to China.

In any case, the US is obliged to deal with China because of its central
role in the two most pressing security problems in east Asia: Taiwan, which
is protected by the US but threatened by Beijing with forcible reintegration
into the People’s Republic; and North Korea, which has been developing
nuclear weapons. One of the understandings at the heart of the US-China
relationship today is that Washington’s job is to curb Taiwanese moves
towards independence, while the task of Beijing is to keep North Korea at
the negotiating table.

It is in Congress, not the Bush administration, that US anti-China sentiment
is concentrated. Congress brings together trade protectionists, pro-Taiwan
“hawks” and defenders of human rights.

Yet even in the US government, the policy of engagement with China is under
strain. The US has criticised China’s decision to adopt an “anti- secession”
law authorising the use of force against Taiwan, and US officials say China
is not doing enough to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions or to persuade
it to resume stalled disarmament talks. The US has also noticed with alarm
that China is exercising its economic and diplomatic muscle in the wider
world – beyond its traditional sphere of influence in Asia.

China is seen by the US as the main hindrance to passing a UN Security
Council resolution that would put pressure on Sudan to halt the mass
killings and destruction of villages in its western region of Darfur. Sudan
supplies about 10 per cent of China’s oil imports and has received large
arms shipments in return. Ed Royce, a Californian Republican in the House of
Representatives, visited Darfur last month and wants the Bush administration
to confront China openly. “We should force a vote and force Russia and China
to use their veto, show their cards, by vetoing oil sanctions.”

China’s energy-driven relationship with Iran – a Chinese state oil company
recently struck a $70bn deal to buy oil and gas over three decades – is also
complicating joint EU-US efforts to put pressure on the Islamic government
to give up parts of its nuclear programme. China would almost certainly
block serious sanctions against Iran in the UN.

A commentary in the neoconservative Weekly Standard this week reflected the
angst of the US right: “China is beginning to string together a necklace of
client states in the oil-rich Middle East – Iran and Sudan, to name two –
and even into the Americas, cosying up to Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez.”

In Asia and the Pacific, the US remains the dominant military power, as it
has been since the defeat of Japan in the second world war. However, China’s
growing economic strength and its integration into the Asian and global
economies mean that the US does not enjoy untrammelled influence. The US,
for example, is finding it hard to persuade allies such as South Korea – now
heavily dependent on trade with China – to take a tough line with Kim
Jong-il, the North Korean leader.

“China is using its economic power in the region,” says a diplomat involved
in trying to solve the North Korean nuclear crisis. “The US is trying to
maintain its traditional role, and others – while recognising that role –
are not prepared to accept the degree of US dominance they had before.”

Given the interdependence between the US and Chinese economies, any US
attempts to limit China’s economic rise are likely to be sporadic at best,
and probably limited to knee-jerk protectionist moves in Congress that would
be opposed by US multinationals with investments in Chinese manufacturing.

As in diplomacy, there is an implicit bargain in US-China economic
relations: the US tolerates China’s surging exports to the US and the
resulting bilateral trade surplus for China, but China recycles its new
wealth by helping to finance the US budget deficit. China has more than
$600bn of foreign reserves, much of it in US Treasury bills. Asked if the US
is held hostage by its financial situation, Tom Lantos, the senior Democrat
on the House of Representatives’ international relations committee, replies:

On the military and diplomatic front, the US has more room for manoeuvre.
For a start, US officials say, Chinese diplomacy is not nearly as effective
as Beijing’s admirers believe. China’s forceful approach to territorial
claims in the South China Sea, its nationalistic view of Asian history, its
clumsy handling of Taiwan and the pro- democracy movement in Hong Kong, and
its low profile in the aid effort for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunamis
in December have not endeared China to its nervous neighbours.

“This idea that the Chinese have been unerringly successful in scoring
diplomatic coups around the region – I think that’s grossly overblown,” says
the State Department official.

Japan, meanwhile, is emerging under Junichiro Koizumi, the prime minister
and friend of Mr Bush, as an unexpectedly assertive Asian ally of the US and
rival to China. “Japan used to be very shy of using the words ‘national
interest’,” says Kenzo Oshima, Japanese ambassador to the United Nations.
“That inhibition has gone.”

The increasing respectability of nationalism in Japanese politics – some of
the likely successors to Mr Koizumi next year are more nationalistic than he
is – could significantly affect the balance of power in east Asia. Japan is
the world’s second largest economy and, like the US, it has a mutually
dependent relationship with China, but it also has powerful armed forces and
is emerging gradually, with US support, from 60 years of pacifism imposed by
its post-war constitution.

Washington, which is also strengthening its ties with other Asia-Pacific
powers, such as India and Australia, is delighted at the turn of events in
Japan. But China, which had to apologise after one of its nuclear-powered
submarines was detected in Japanese territorial waters near Taiwan in
November, is watching warily. Beijing is concerned that the US and Japan
will team up to contain Chinese power.

“If they are doing it, we will be worried,” says a senior Chinese official,
arguing that the US-Japan alliance was understandable during the cold war
but makes no sense today. “We believe the alliance is outdated – but what we
see is that it is being strengthened.”

For US conservatives, almost any policy that restricts Chinese power is to
be recommended even if it means accepting the unsavoury side of Japanese
nationalism. American rightwingers say Washington’s patchwork of bilateral
alliances and its ad hoc approach to Asian crises compare unfavourably with
Beijing’s recent diplomacy at multilateral Asian meetings and, in the words
of the Weekly Standard, its patient strategy of “unravelling the Pax

John Tkacik, an Asia analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative
think-tank, goes so far as to say that resource-poor modern China is as much
of a threat to peace as pre-war Japan. “China is right now in the same
position that Japan was in the late 1920s and early 1930s,” he says. “It’s
been taken over by a group of nationalistic militarists.” The aim of the
Chinese Communist party, he observes, is not to implement communist ideology
but to increase “the comprehensive strength of the nation”.

Despite concerns over Beijing’s threats against Taiwan and its reluctance to
rein in North Korea, this alarmist view of China’s growing power is not
widely shared at Ms Rice’s State Department, where officials point to the
beneficial effects of globalisation and the importance of international
trade to Chinese prosperity.

Even in the US Congress, where legislators are often fiercely critical of
China, some are optimistic about the future of US relations with China and
the rest of Asia. The 77-year-old Mr Lantos, detained in a forced labour
camp at the age of 16 when his native Hungary was occupied by Nazi Germany,
warns against the dangers of arming China and threatens European weapons
exporters with dire reprisals if they do so. But he does not see China as a
threat to the US or to world peace.

“It’s very important to separate the very positive secular trend from the
ups and downs of day-to-day diplomacy,” he says. “We are at a moment in
history when all the great entities – Europe, the US, India, China, Japan –
are basically on the same side, and on the other side are the ‘rogue states’
and the global terrorist movement. And that’s why I’m the world’s calmest
human being, because there’s no doubt in my mind what the end of this movie
will be.” The question is whether China, Japan and the US under Mr Bush
share his vision of how the plot should unfold.

No good ways to deal with North Korea

The slow-burning North Korean nuclear crisis is probably the best
contemporary illustration of J.K. Galbraith’s famous advice to President
John F. Kennedy that politics is not the art of the possible but of choosing
between “the disastrous and the unpalatable”.

All the options available to President George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice,
US secretary of state, fall into one of those two categories. When Ms Rice
arrives in Seoul tomorrow North Korea’s nuclear weapons programmes will be
at the top of her agenda, but no solution palatable to Washington is in

Since Pyongyang declared on February 10 that it had made nuclear weapons and
was withdrawing from the six-nation talks aimed at resolving the issue,
frenzied diplomatic meetings have taken place across north-east Asia and in
Washington.Yet nothing substantial has changed. North Korea insists it will
not deal with a “hostile” US. The US is refusing to negotiate bilaterally
with North Korea, a country described by Ms Rice as an “outpost of tyranny”.
The six-party talks – involving the two Koreas, the US, China, Japan and
Russia – have broken down. No meeting has been held since last June and even
China, the host for the talks, admitted yesterday that there was a

“Neither side will offer any concessions and without a shift in the US’s
position or in North Korea’s position, I can’t see a resumption of the
talks,” says Park Young-ho, a North Korea specialist at the South’s Korea
Institute for National Unification.

A North Korean businessman with close ties to Kim Jong-il’s regime says
Washington needs to allow North Korea a way to soften its position while
retaining its pride. “We have a proverb: when you club a wild dog you have
to leave it a way to get out, otherwise the dog will bounce back and bite
you,” he says.

North Korea still believed in talks but would prefer bilateral discussions
with Washington, he says. “The six-party talks route was not our choice but
we accepted it. If we have direct talks the problems can be solved more
easily, but Big Brother America does not want that.”

The US, however, is weary of North Korean prevarication and demands for
up-front concessions. Washington says it has no plans to attack North Korea
but argues that the spread of nuclear weapons in the region is as much of a
concern for north-east Asian nations as for the US.

Until recently, all parties to the talks were content to see the
negotiations drag on. The US has been distracted by the conflict in Iraq,
while China sees no benefit in a confrontation between Washington and
Pyongyang. “They [the Chinese] see these talks as a way of keeping the US
tied down diplomatically so it doesn’t make trouble militarily,” says Selig
Harrison, head of the Asia programme at the Centre for International Policy.

However, North Korea’s declaration on February 10 and subsequent defiant
statements have increased the pressure for a solution and helped to poison
relations between the US and its partners in China and South Korea.

Fearing regional instability, China and South Korea have both been urging
the US to take a more “flexible” and “creative” approach. But the US has
placed the onus of bringing North Korea back to the table on China, which,
as Pyongyang’s closest ideological ally and biggest aid donor, has the most
leverage over Mr Kim’s regime.

“The Chinese are 100 per cent supportive of North Korea,” complains John
Tkacik of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank in Washington.
“North Korea has said they are walking away from the six-party talks five
separate times, and each time, like James Brown at the Apollo, they are
persuaded to come back for an encore.”

Analysts across the US political spectrum agree that Ms Rice is in a weak
position because the US has no clear policy on North Korea. “There were
conservatives who thought they could deal with Iraq, and then move on to
North Korea. But they didn’t deal with Iraq as expeditiously as they would
like,” says a western negotiator.

Washington’s remaining hope is that Mr Kim’s regime will collapse from
within and provide the US with a ready-made solution, but scant evidence to
support such a scenario has trickled out of Pyongyang. “The Bush
administration’s approach is all or nothing. Since complete disarmament is
unrealistic, what we have is nothing,” says Gary Samore, a non-proliferation
expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London who
served in the Clinton administration. “People have been betting on the
collapse of the North Korean regime for 15 years now, and it hasn’t