The coming ‘Year of the Tiger’ promises a rough ride for China’s relations with the US and Europe. Global attention has been on the relationship, in the wake of Google’s announcement that it could pull out of China if its differences with the Chinese authorities on censorship issues remain unresolved. What at first glance seems to be a case of resurgence of ethical values, which had conveniently lain dormant for four profit-making years, actually exemplifies Western frustration and concern at Beijing’s growing assertiveness and apparent arrogance in international relations.
The immediate provocation for Google’s announcement was the severe attack by Chinese hackers on e-mail accounts of human rights activists. Google, which had thus far cooperated with Chinese authorities in restricting access to certain sites and censoring e-mail traffic, objected to the cyber attack, which selectively extracted the contents of e-mail accounts and transferred them to a provider based in China. Google claimed that at least 30 other commercial entities were subjected to this espionage attack. The revelation came on the heels of a report that a power outage, in middle America in mid-December, was the result of an attack from China on a power utility. US and West European countries, which are more ‘networked’, are particularly vulnerable to cyber attacks and very concerned about China’s capabilities. These incidents have aggravated already heightened global concern at the hostile activities of Chinese hackers, believed to be state-sponsored. The cyber attacks have raised the level of debate concerning retaliation.
Google’s announcement of a possible withdrawal from the China market is actually reflective of larger concerns. It signals that US and Western dissatisfaction with China on a variety of issues will finally begin to influence the political landscape. China’s growing economic and military power are key factors. A series of assessments of a rapidly growing China poised to rival, if not overtake, the US economy in a couple of decades has contributed to the concern. A recent article by Nobel Prize-winning economist and Harvard Professor Robert Fogel is illustrative. Fogel assesses that China’s economy will reach $123 trillion, its share of global GDP will be 40 per cent and it will achieve a per capita income of $85,000 by 2040. This will be double that of the EU. Numerous other assessments similarly point to China’s rapidly growing economy and consequent accretion in military and national strength. US lawmakers separately expressed concern, in testimony at Congressional hearings prior to finalisation of the Quadrennial Defence Review recommendations, at the build-up in China’s military strength. While some assessments argue that by 2025 China will have begun to run out of steam, these could underestimate the resources of China’s communist leadership. The fragility of China’s authoritarian political system nevertheless is a key factor. In any event, the attitude of Chinese leaders during the current economic crisis has been perceived by many Western leaders as overbearing and based on an exaggerated estimation of China’s actual economic and national strength.
These considerations ensured prompt governmental support to Google’s decision. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both endorsed it within a couple of days, clearly indicating US unhappiness with China’s behaviour and policies. The US president additionally called for a full investigation into the source of the cyber attacks. Chinese high-handedness, which was on display during Obama’s visit to China did not go down well with the US people or government, has contributed. This included Beijing ignoring Obama’s requests on human rights issues, refusal to allow telecast of Obama’s address to students of Beida and demotion of the chief editor of Southern Evening News for arranging an exclusive interview with Obama. Popular perception in the US, including within the administration, was that China’s leadership had deliberately humiliated their president.
Beijing predictably reacted angrily to the US decision to proceed with arms sales to Taiwan. China’s irritation was discernible in its successful test of a ground-based, mid-course, missile interception system on January 11, soon after US announced the arms sale, including the PAC-3 air defence system, to Taiwan. China’s official media pointedly highlighted tough statements by Chinese military analysts, who suggested that China was almost on par with US in missile interception capabilities. Writing in Study Times, Major General Jun Yinan of China’s National Defence University advocated ‘countermeasures to make the other side pay a corresponding price and suffer corresponding punishment’. Describing the arms sale as ‘stupid’, Chu Shilong, a Chinese political scientist, asked whether Mainland China or arms sales to Taiwan and human rights were more important to the US. A military expert and researcher at the Centre for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, asserted ‘arms sales will hurt core interests of China and China will give tit for tat and will not yield’.
Human Rights and Tibet, both issues on the backburner in the past couple of years, have returned to the agenda. Britain, which was the first to obsequiously ‘kowtow’ to China on the Tibet issue, was snubbed when pleas by its prime minister to the Chinese leadership not to execute a 53-year old mentally unstable British national, arrested on charges of drug smuggling, were ignored. Chinese academics and officials, on the contrary, sought to publicly draw a parallel between an incident in Singapore many years earlier, where a young British boy was flogged, and said that Chinese people see nothing wrong in the execution. The recent conviction of Tiananmen era dissident Liu Xiaobo, despite international appeals for clemency, has triggered demands for his release including from the US. China’s irritation will mount when Obama meets the Dalai Lama during his visit to the US in coming days and when Taiwan’s president briefly stops over.
Climate change, trade and currency revaluation are other issues that will occupy centre-stage in bilateral discussions, imposing additional strain on the relationship. The US imposing tariffs on Chinese tires and steel, shortly prior to announcing the arms sale to Taiwan, is the beginning.
The ‘Year of the Tiger’ will be turbulent for China’s relations with the US and West. Unless Beijing ceases being assertive with other nations, including in the region, China is likely to remain under pressure. People’s University professor Shi Yinhong observed that ‘China has been taking a harder line and the next few months will see some turbulence in China-US relations’. However, he added that ‘we may see some tactical concessions from China, but the general trend isn’t towards compromise’.
About the author:
Jayadeva Ranade is a former additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India