Beijing's Fragile Swagger (Page 2 of 2)

The irony of all of this is that China doesn’t want US power to fall away rapidly—it wants the United States to remain a vital, global force with which China has deep structural relations.

The reason? China wants to free-ride on US global power because it fears its own internal fragility. China knows that it’s not ready to carry the burden of global stability and isn’t ready to position itself as a provider of global public goods while it’s still in a mode of highly concentrated neo-mercantilist self interest.

China fears the Obama administration is weak, very weak—and that the world will keep provoking the United States to see where its power begins and ends.  In fact, China is doing the same thing—testing US resolve, including rejecting six times US-Republic of Korea joint military exercises that will now go on despite Chinese objections (which they have themselves recently softened).

China has also rebuked the Obama administration for arranging a meeting with the Dalai Lama and protested vehemently over arms sales to Taiwan, a move that prompted it to suspend military-to-military exchanges and block a trip to China planned by Defense Secretary Gates.  In the words of both a senior US interlocutor with the Chinese government and a senior Chinese official, ‘China is poking the US to see how America will respond.’

The impression in Beijing is that the United States is desperate for China’s support and fears upending a relationship it badly needs.  The reality, according to both Chinese and informed foreign expatriate voices here is that while China will escalate to near breaking point a dispute of some sort, ultimately China will respect resolve and won’t break the compact of cooperation.

The Chinese experience is that the US regularly blinks first—and works harder for Chinese attention than China is willing to work for US attention. This gives it an edge in the Sino-American relationship that many in the Chinese government actually aren’t particularly comfortable with.  They want a stronger United States, one with vision and one that’s willing to continue to set the terms of the global order that China is prospering in.

Unfortunately, what they see instead is a desperate country that swings between appeasement of China’s geoeconomic and geopolitical appetite on one side, and fear of China and talk about containing or punishing or imposing surcharges on it on the other.

It’s ironic then that these two extremes, which China believes demonstrate the United States is forfeiting its dominance in the international system, validate China’s sense of importance and evolving swagger, one which many in Beijing actually believe is a ‘fragile swagger’ that’s not yet ready for primetime.


Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note and is editor-at-large of Talking Points Memo.  He also directs the American Strategy Program of the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank.

December 30, 2011 at 22:31

Not only Taiwan, but also Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia Interor and Manchuria have been belong to China.

February 6, 2011 at 16:25

Does China have defense commitments with Cuba, Mexico, or Panama that date back to the American revolution? If so I would expect to see the Chinese navy sailing about in the Gulf of Mexico. This especially if the USA was continually threatening to invade and adsorb these countries. America has every right to show its support, and defend its free world allies and friends in Asia. Its time Washington changed policy and stopped allowing the economic conquest of the free world by the PRC, and destruction of American industry by “free trade” thus allowing Chinese military advances.

July 30, 2010 at 17:28

I would also add that Taiwan does meet all the points outlined in the Montevideo Convention for an independent nation.
Since the ROC did not exist until 1911 or 1912, and the PRC did not exist until 1949 and since until 1945 Taiwan was a part of Japan. After the war, Japan was ordered to surrender the Island with no recipient mentioned until 1952 when it was made neutral.
Another argument I have heard tossed around is that the majority of Taiwan’s population in Han, and that carries no more weight than the majority of US citizens are British, French, German or whatever. Does that mean most nations of Western Europe can claim the US as theirs?
Since the PRC claims that Taiwan is an inseparable part of China, why doesn’t the PRC just make a land-grab and solve it once and for all? Why don’t they block US warships from patrolling the Straits? Why didn’t the PRC make any attempt to take Taiwan in the 1940′s and 1950′s? Oh, they did and they failed. Why doesn’t the PRC just accept that Taiwan is not, never has been and most likely never will be a part of them?

July 30, 2010 at 16:58

Taiwan is not a province of the PRC. How can Taiwan be a province of the PRC?
It never was and doubtful it ever will be. Taiwan was a territory of the Qing for about 200 years until the Qing lost Taiwan in 1895 to the Japanese who in turn were forced to surrender the Island after WWII, yet there was no receiver for the Island and it was never given to the ROC or the PRC. Due to communist aggression in Korea, it was purposely made neutral in a treaty with Japan in 1952 and has been unsettled since.
Also, Taiwan is a democracy, the PRC is not. How can that be? Beijing has no authority over Taipei, so, again, how can that be a province?

July 25, 2010 at 08:42

Interesting comment above about Taoism and its possible influence on modern Chinese geostrategy — but marred by boilerplate propaganda that is the telltale sign of the Chinese Communist Party’s paid Internet operatives.

The country that calls itself China only began doing so in 1912. It inherited the territory and cultures of a chain of empires and national coalitions whose written records go back about 3,000 years and begin with a little nub of a kingdom about the size of Connecticut. The most recent empire was that of the Manchus who ruled for nearly three centuries until the Republican revolution that created modern China. Though assimilated into Chinese history as the “Qing Dynasty” the Manchus were loathed in their time by the Chinese as foreign invaders and usurpers. They were non-Chinese and their empire was far larger than anything that could be considered part of historical China, whether in terms of culture, people, language or political identity: it incorporated the vast territories north of the Great Wall that we know as Mongolia and Manchuria, expanded westwards to gobble up massive new acquisitions in Central Asia (renamed as Xinjiang) and of course it tried to seize the equally large territory of Tibet (but settled in the end for a face-saving arrangement under which the Manchu court stationed a tiny representative office in Lhasa but had no administrative or military authority).

The Manchus also made a grab for Taiwan, which had never been ruled or occupied by any of the previous empires — but in the end they found it too much trouble and voluntarily traded it to Japan at the end of the 19th century after failing to exclude the Japanese from Korea.

None of these places — Manchuria, Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan — had ever been part of “China” and their description as provinces of the modern Chinese state is mostly a legacy of that state’s 20th century efforts to seize as much territory for itself as the shutters of internationally defined sovereignty came down around the globe.

Have another look at this story. “China” is as much an imagined entity as any other state in the world. But it is still an empire, incorporating vast colonial acquisitions that can only be maintained through fear and oppression. This is reason enough for the unsteady combination of insecurity and swagger that characterizes that country’s diplomatic style. Then factor in the paranoia and weakness (yes, really) of China’s ruling Communist Party, which lacks the legitimacy of having ever once been selected to govern by the Chinese public.

I think Steve Clemons is right. The CCP regime in Beijing fears its own subjects more than anything else, and is covertly desperate for the US to act with resolve and authority. If US power melts away — as a Taoist might advise — then Chinese ultranationalism will surge and everyone, starting with the CCP, will pay the price.

July 25, 2010 at 01:20

Perhaps, it would serve to rebuke what you wrote about China “doesn’t interfere in other nations’ internal affairs” by reminding you of China’s historical aggression agaìnst its neighbors. Take Vietnam, for example, throughout its millenias existing besides China, the latter constantly meddled in its affairs, from manipulating local politics to outright invasion. China doesn’t sail a naval fleet into the Gulf of Mexico or perform air patrols like the Soviets/Russians, but that’s simply because it can’t do that yet. Not because it won’t.

Don Bacon
July 24, 2010 at 01:09

Steve has spent some time in China now, but has unfortunately failed to absorb much of its history or culture, and is in this piece merely stating some obvious conventional wisdom.

Yes, the US is having trouble accepting China as a new world (or certainly Asia) hegemon. Yes, the US is still trapped by bi-polar cold war thinking, with its reliance on military power. Yes, China “provokes” the US with its weak resistance to US moves into its sphere (Tibet, Taiwan, China Seas).

The biggest CW proclamation: The only thing China respects is force. “while these architects of China’s rise respect and respond to power, they view solicitousness and vacillation as weakness.” Where have we heard that before? And with respect to China it’s flat wrong.

Historically, China (a 5,000 year old nation) has been occupied and harassed by western powers, including the US. The US Marines have been there, several times. The US naval fleet has sailed between China and its province of Taiwan. Currently, a US naval thinks that sailing around in the East China Sea is a cool move.

Just recently the US SecState has proclaimed that China’s claims in the South China Sea are a matter of US concern. China has said : “Yes, we will talk about the South China Sea.” Note that China will not sent its naval fleet into the Gulf of Mexico in retaliation, it will talk about the South China Sea. Why?

Culturally, one cannot understand China without understanding Taoism. Tao, The Way. It has been described as the course of a stream as it proceeds downward, taking the best path between obstacles. Patience and politeness, not power, pays.

The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, is one of the most influential books in history, and it has a different take on power. Chapter 69: Winning a fight by giving in–

Military strategists have a saying:
“Rather than act like the lord of the manor,
I would rather behave like a guest.
Rather than advance an inch,
I would rather retreat a foot.”

The point of the saying is that you should:
Advance upon them without going forward
Seize their property without even bearing arms.
Attack where there is no enemy.
Prevail upon them without weapons.

There is no greater disaster than to underestimate your enemy.
If I did that, I would lose my 3 treasures (benevolence, frugality, never trying to be number one)
In combat, the most reticent side will win.

China will act in its own way (tao), based on its history and culture. That’s why China doesn’t interfere in other nations’ internal affairs, why it doesn’t sail its naval fleet in the Gulf of Mexico, and why it will talk to Secretary Clinton about the South China Sea.

July 23, 2010 at 16:11

Americans want to be loved especially Democratic Presidents.

“Since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.”

Niccolo Machiavelli

July 22, 2010 at 20:32

as Bill Clinton once said, we have more to fear from a weak China than a strong China. China has more to fear from a Weak US than a strong US.

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