It used to be a normal spat, at least as normal as one can expect an interaction between the Americans and the Chinese to be. The Americans would announce an arms package for Taiwan, and Beijing would demonstrate its anger by issuing a strongly worded statement. The Americans would clarify they were bound by law to provide military aid to Taiwan. And after a few days, it would all be forgotten. After all, the US has been supplying arms to Taiwan under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which mandates that the US supply weapons that can be used by Taiwan to defend itself against an attack by mainland China.
This time, however, it turned out differently. After the Obama administration notified the US Congress that it plans to sell weapons systems to Taiwan worth $6.4 billion, China has been markedly aggressive in reacting, compared with the past. Not only was the US ambassador to China called in by the Chinese government to protest against the arms sales and warned of serious repercussions if the deal went through, China also cancelled some of its military exchange programmes with the US and announced sanctions against US companies that are supplying weapons systems to Taiwan.
This announcement of sanctions has come as a surprise and is a sign of a new assertiveness that China has been displaying on the international scene for some time now. For the first time, China has decided to penalize US companies that are engaged in commercial arms transactions and are not in violation of global non-proliferation norms.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
This comes at a time of growing tensions between the Obama administration and China despite the former’s attempts to co-opt Beijing as a strategic partner. There was even talk of a G-2—a US-China condominium—to solve global problems. But things have not gone as planned and, with a sense around the world that the relative power of the US is on decline even as China remains on a sustained upward trajectory, China has pursued its own interests with single-minded tenacity.
Today, the US and China are squabbling over issues related to Internet freedom and China’s treatment of Western businesses. There is no help forthcoming from China on the Iranian nuclear question. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton has gone to the extent of publicly warning Beijing of significant trouble if Iran’s nuclear programme is not tackled by the international community immediately. But China’s oil interests in Iran remain significant, preventing it from supporting additional sanctions on Tehran.
Google’s threat to cease its operations in China because of cyber censorship and the allegations of hacking by Chinese authorities into email accounts of human rights activists has also prompted Washington to warn China of US business’ growing disenchantment with Beijing. Trouble is also expected to arise later this month when the Dalai Lama visits the US and maybe ends up meeting Barack Obama, who had faced flak for not meeting the spiritual leader last year.
But the China of today is not the China of yore. It is ready and willing to push back the US on issues of vital national interests. It sees itself as a major global player and, therefore, is reluctant to be viewed as a push-over. Not surprising, therefore, that senior People’s Liberation Army officers are openly demanding that their government sell some US bonds to punish Washington for its “anti-China” policies. China publicly hectored White House envoy Todd Stern during the conference on climate change at Copenhagen in December and refused to give in to the West during the negotiations. It also forced the organizers of this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos not to take up issues of cyber-security and Internet freedom despite these being of Interest to Western governments and businesses. It was at WEF last year that the Chinese Premier had lectured the US on how to manage its economy better.
The US, however, is still the world’s pre-eminent power and China knows that it will have to keep Washington in good humour at least in the short to medium term. The trouble is for the rest of the world, where China is showing little compunction in pursuing its agenda without any inclination to give anything in return. Western Europe is reassessing its entire China strategy as a realization is growing that for all the hopes of growing economic integration between China and Europe, there has been little impact on China’s behaviour.
It is time for India also to reassess its China policy, if indeed it has one. China’s assertiveness vis-à-vis India has been on display much before it turned its gaze to the West. India has not only lost territory to China over the last few years, it is also losing its credibility as a rising Asian power because of its inability to stand up to the Chinese in defence of its national interests.
Indian national security and foreign policy interests demand that the rise of China and its consequences be addressed more purposefully and with a long-term orientation. Greater economic cooperation should be pursued, but as the straining of ties between the West and China underlines, politics can never trump economics in international relations.
Harsh Pant teaches at King’s College, London, and is currently a visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org