Peter Foster on Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington:
For advocates of a tougher line on China, the fact that Beijing overplayed its hand reinforced their argument that economic engagement has not delivered the once-hoped-for progress on other fronts. Aaron Friedberg, a Princeton academic, whose book A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia sees the relationship in starkly oppositional terms, is among those who would keep diplomatic niceties to a minimum.
“The Chinese have done us an enormous favour, strategically, in the last few years,” he said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph this week. “Their behaviour has scared everybody and has shaken things up in this country too. It’s made people take more seriously the challenge that China poses.”
Strip away the pleasantries, however, and you quickly arrive at a bedrock of hard differences and strategic conficts that are not currently being bridged by talking. As the dissident Yu Jie confirmed in an interview with this newspaper this week, China remains a country where the secret police can throw a bag over your head, break your fingers and beat you unconscious for writing a book criticising senior leaders such as Mr Xi. On the surface China might increasingly resemble America, with its glittering skylines and six-lane highways filled with GM cars, but after three decades of economic engagement with the West there remain far too many dark corners of the Chinese state.
Meanwhile, China’s military build-up, still a long way from matching the US, continues apace, with figures this week showing that next year China will spend more on its armed forces than all other Asia-Pacific nations put together. Strategically, China continues to hedge its bets, soft-pedalling on Iran and washing its hands of the bloodshed in Syria by calling it “essentially an internal affair”.
With such deep, evident differences, Mr Xi has this week urged a longer view, framing what he calls the “drifting clouds” and “temporary disturbances” of the current turbulent relationship against the undeniable achievements in the 40 years since Nixon’s landmark visit to China. But as he knows, maintaining the trajectory of those achievements is not a foregone conclusion. The economic dynamic that served both sides over four decades is shifting; the pool of cheap, non-unionised labour that enriched many Western corporations will start to contract from 2015, while technological advances in China’s own industrial base, obtained by means fair and foul, are now cutting across the bows of those same corporations. At the same time, China’s socially networked middle classes are outgrowing the authoritarian political model that Mr Xi is pledged to perpetuate.
China’s response is to plead for time and understanding, but as its new leader begins a decade in power, he will find those in short supply, both at home and abroad. One senior Party official in Beijing likened China’s situation today to their 7ft 6in basketball star Yao Ming, who was often mistaken for an adult when he was a teenager. China, she argued, might look like a developed nation, but really needed to be treated gently when it came to human rights, trade and global responsibilities.
The analogy was more apposite than the mandarin perhaps realised. China is just like a teenager, one minute angrily demanding equality and mutual respect but too often, when asked to meet its responsibilities, begging for a free pass. The world must hope that China turns out OK in the end, but as Mr Obama hinted in his remarks this week, that won’t happen unless the West lays down some ground rules and, more importantly, sticks to them.