The Other Dangerous China Policy
Posted by Bill R. French
As Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin has discussed, China Daily yesterday published an editorial commentary condemning Mitt Romney’s China policy. The commentary accused Romney of a “Cold War mentality” – by now a common trope in the Chinese government and media – and claimed his policies would “only lead to head-on confrontation between the two countries.”
Rogin’s reporting on the event logically included a brief mention of the recently leaked draft of the official GOP national convention platform for foreign policy. However, upon closer inspection, that platform is worse than even the most cynical observer might expect. By combining factual errors with extremely confrontational and escalatory policies, the platform suggests a fundamentally dangerous course for Sino-American relations.
If there is any doubt about the China Daily commentary in regards to Romney’s positions on China, that doubt is removed entirely if applied to the RNC’s prospective platform.
During Ma Ying-Jeou’s Administration, cross-Strait relations have warmed considerably since the instable years presided over by former President Chen Shui-Bian. This has led some commentators to observe that the cross-Strait outlook “appears more stable than they have been in more than sixty years.”
Yet, the draft RNC platform proposes to replace stability with political-military escalation, committing major factual errors in the process.
At the core of the trouble is that the document claims the United States is legally obligated to defend Taiwan, saying that “if China were to violate those principles [of peacefully settling the dispute of Taiwan’s status], the U.S., in accord with the Taiwan Relations Act, will help Taiwan defend itself.” But, in fact, the Taiwan Relations Act makes no such obligation regarding US defense of Taiwan in the face of Chinese aggression -- it obligates the US only to sell the Island defensive arms and makes no reference to American responsibilities in the event of a cross-Strait war whatsoever.
The Wrong Move on the South China Sea
Just as troublingly, the RNC platform “condemn[s]” Beijing’s “destabilizing claims in the South China Sea.” This, too, would break with longstanding policy. Historically, Washington has prioritized moderation over confrontation and taken no positions on maritime or territorial disputes in the region. Instead, the position has been on the conduct of those disputes, which the United States asserts should be restrained and peaceful.
From moving America’s role from moderator to enforcer, any position which “condemns” or rejects Chinese claims in the South China Sea would invite disastrous consequences. Most immediately, Washington would involve itself in the intensely nationalistic nature of the disputes, attracting greater ire by growing Chinese nationalism, thereby increasing pressure on Chinese elites to take more aggressive action vis-à-vis the United States that would otherwise be eschewed. In general terms, this would undermine the rational basis of Sino-American relations. The risks of such a move are pronounced. For example, in the ongoing dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, Chinese nationalist demonstrations called for using military force against Japan. Some signs read, “Even if China is covered with graves, we must kill all Japanese!” While the Diayu/Senkaku Islands are located in the East China Sea, the point regarding Chinese nationalism and maritime disputes is clear: as a rule, the coupling of the Sino-American relationship with Chinese nationalism is to be avoided, not encouraged.
The higher order effects of opposing Chinese claims directly would likewise be considerable. Such a policy may undermine the credibility that Washington will require if it is to help reduce the possibility of conflict during future flare ups, undermine the American ability to support long-term solutions to maritime disputes in the region – including US support of the Code of Conduct – and may set a precedent for taking positions on the overlapping claims of other states in the South China Sea, all of whom are growing American partners. The latter is especially the case regarding Taiwan, whose claims form the basis of those made by Beijing and would therefore likewise require “condemnation” if intellectual consistency is to be applied.
The PLA Problem
In particular, the RNC’s policy proposals involving Taiwan and the South China Sea would risk dramatically escalating Sino-US military tensions. Yet, the document appears blind to these this risk because it fails to apprehend some of the basic motivations behind Chinese security policy when it “condemn[s] …China’s pursuit of advanced military capability without any apparent need.” While the modernization of the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) poses a robust security challenge, addressing that challenge requires a serious look at Chinese calculus, not denying that calculus.
While the growing strength of the PLA is understandably unappealing to an American audience, the buildup is nonetheless rationally driven by Chinese security perceptions and policy. The Pentagon’s 2010 report on Chinese military power lists some of the factors and interests which contribute to that policy. These include nationalism, access to markets and resources, domestic politics, cross-Strait dynamics, and regional concerns, including the maritime disputes in the South China Sea. In service of these security interests, the operational thinking of the PLA – and hence an important guide to its modernization – is driven by the perceived need to conduct “counter intervention” operations against advanced militaries who would use force to violate Chinese interests.
That is, PLA modernization is driven by the prospect of confronting a hostile US military in the Western Pacific, especially in contingencies involving Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Thus, the same modernization of the PLA which the RNC platform ‘condemns’ is driven in large part by the disputes that the same platform calls to escalate. With this in mind, moving towards a hard, confrontational approach on Taiwan and the South China Sea can engender no response other than an a more aggressive PLA buildup than would have otherwise been the case. In this way, not only do the RNC policy proposals demonstrate a lack of understanding of the world’s most formidable foreign military, but also of the outcomes that its own proposals invite.