U.S. Needs to Put Away Evil Empire Card on China

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An influential section of the US commentariat, and of the political elite, insists on dividing people into doves and hawks. This is how the most important of all international relationships, between the US and China, is too drearily often assessed.

New Secretary of State John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, set for confirmation as defence secretary, are damned as doves. They may well deserve a degree of damnation. But such a binary view of a complex situation betrays deep roots in the Cold War that made life conceptually simple, and which many "experts", American and Chinese, are reluctant to leave behind.

Doves are people Cold War hawks used to call "fellow travellers". Hawks are people Cold War doves used to call "warmongers". And this hasn't changed much. Not enough, given the all-enveloping nature of this relationship.

Of course, some of the atmospherics are similar. The rulers of China, whose power, when they choose to exercise it, is pervasive, are the leaders of the Communist Party. The institutions of state in the People's Republic retain the structure and nomenclature of the old Soviet Union.

The US remains leader of the Western world, the torch-bearer for liberal democracy with a mission to further its values globally. But the enmeshment of China and the US today marks a stunning contrast with the stark separation between the old Soviet Union and America.

The US is by far China's biggest trading partner. China is the US's biggest partner after its neighbour Canada. The children of China's elite, including the daughter of top leader Xi Jinping, are now routinely educated in the US. Large numbers of Americans study, teach or do business in China.

Beijing has become America's banker - although change is on its way, as manufacturing slowly returns to the US, and the yuan keeps edging higher.

The challenges in this relationship are coming from the countries rubbing up against each other ever more intimately, rather than from icy distance as in the Cold War.

Linda Jakobson, the Lowy Institute's East Asia Program director, says in a paper released yesterday on "China's Foreign Policy Dilemma" that "to stay in power, (Xi) must ensure continued economic growth and social stability". And, due to this preoccupation by the new leadership with domestic issues, "Chinese foreign policy can be expected to be reactive", placing regional stability at risk.

Much depends, then, on how well Washington manages the relationship. Success would make "The China Choice" posed by Australian security expert Hugh White redundant.

What will Kerry and Hagel do? Kerry is so loquacious he may end up bamboozling listeners, especially in Asia, as to what he really means. His Senate voting record is mixed. He consistently voted for normalising trade relations, against penalties for suppressing the yuan, and against enhanced monitoring of China on human rights concerns, but for moves to express concern over forced abortions, and over religious freedom, and in 1999 to require congressional approval before backing the admission of China to the World Trade Organisation.

The gist of his long China speech in the Senate 16 months ago can be gauged from his remark that "this is a very complicated relationship with enormous interests on both sides for us to avoid confrontation in a lot of different ways, a lot of different kinds of confrontation". So that's clear, then.

What does this mean for the "Asia pivot"? In his Senate confirmation hearing, he said: "I am not convinced that the US needs to increase its military presence in the Asia-Pacific."

Jin Canrong, an international affairs professor at Renmin University in Beijing, says Kerry will be "less aggressive towards China" than Hillary Clinton, who was perceived as having inflicted damage by drawing together other east Asian countries that had begun to worry about being pushed around by Beijing.

The China Daily has summarised expert analysts as viewing Kerry as "professional, calm and pragmatic".

Hagel, a Vietnam vet, provided a 112-page answer to Senate questions. India is not mentioned. He said the US and its allies should monitor China's military expansion closely, and that Beijing should be more transparent about its strategies.

He pledged increased evaluations and improved military exchanges.

While still in the Senate, Hagel said: "When we say we're going to defend Taiwan, what are we saying there? That if the Chinese send a missile over, we're at war with China? It's a big thing to say." Indeed it is. But does that mean he won't mean it? And Kerry has said the Taiwan Relations Act does not require the US to help defend Taiwan if it is attacked. Watch this space.

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