China Flexes Its Muscles
By Gordon G. Chang
2 January 2008
The U.S. Navy said it was "befuddled" by Beijing's last-minute November
denial of a long-arranged port call for the Kitty Hawk carrier group in
Hong Kong. This turndown was on top of China's refusal to provide
shelter for two U.S. minesweepers seeking refuge from a storm, and its
rejection of a routine visit for a frigate, the Reuben James. The Air
Force also received a "no" for a regular C-17 flight to resupply the
American consulate in Hong Kong.
The immediate causes of these rebuffs may be American arms sales to
Taiwan, which China regards as sovereign territory, and the award of a
congressional medal to the Dalai Lama, with whom Beijing has had a
multi-decade spat. But so many turndowns suggest the decisions were made
at the highest levels of the Chinese central government -- and at a time
when senior leaders are reorienting the country's foreign policy.
Washington's relations with Beijing, in short, appear headed for
increasing disagreement and tension.
Deng Xiaoping, who turned China away from Maoist revolution, believed
that the country should "bide time" and keep a low profile in
international affairs. Deng wanted Beijing to "seek cooperation and
avoid confrontation," especially with the U.S. China, after a series of
disastrous episodes like the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen
massacre, needed a peaceful environment and the help of outsiders to
rebuild its shattered economy.
Deng's successor, Jiang Zemin, followed this general approach even
though he wanted Beijing to pursue his "big country" ambitions. Mr.
Jiang desired recognition for China's growing status, but he saw his
nation working cooperatively with the U.S. and its allies as partners.
Current President Hu Jintao has shifted China in a new direction. Like
Mr. Jiang, he believes that the country should assert itself. But unlike
his predecessor, he seems to think that China should actively work to
restructure the international system to be more to Beijing's liking. In
short, the current leader appears to see his country mostly working
against the U.S.
The shape of China's grand strategy became apparent after a series of
meetings in Beijing in the second half of 2006. In August, the Communist
Party convened its Central Work Conference on Foreign Affairs. The
meeting, the culmination of a half-year, top-to-bottom review of the
country's external policies, brought together for the first time all
members of the Politburo, provincial governors and Party secretaries,
the State Council and central government ministers, about 60 ambassadors
and 30 other diplomats, and key military officers with foreign affairs
Significantly, the public summary of the meeting did not include
references to the invariably cited "bide time" strategy of Deng Xiaoping
-- an indication of a fundamental change in thinking.
Adopting the new tone, that same month Beijing's top U.N. diplomat in
Geneva, Sha Zukang, told the U.S. to "shut up" about China's military
Later in the year, senior leaders met one or more times to confirm the
new foreign policy direction. As veteran China watcher Willy Lam has
noted, Mr. Hu and the leadership decided "to make a clean break with
Deng's cautious axioms and instead, embark on a path of high-profile
Mr. Hu's reorientation of foreign policy is a consequence of his
increasing reliance on the People's Liberation Army as a political base
inside the Party. Since the middle of 2004, he stepped up efforts to
court senior generals for support of his efforts to assert supremacy
over Jiang Zemin, who has been clinging to power and blocking some of
his initiatives. The military, for example, appears to have been behind
Mr. Hu's partially successful effort, in the run-up to last year's 17th
Party Congress, to pick his own successor.
It seems that at the massive conclave, held once every five years, Mr.
Hu obtained the assistance of the more hawkish officers of the PLA in
return for accelerating increases in military spending, promoting some
of them to senior positions -- especially Gen. Chen Bingde to be the
chief of general staff -- and steering the country toward a more
assertive posture toward other nations in general, and Taiwan in
There are several other incidents consistent with China's new assertive
posture. In October 2006, a Chinese submarine for the first time
surfaced in the middle of an American carrier group. This episode,
occurring in the Philippine Sea southeast of Okinawa, was an obvious
warning to the U.S. Navy to stay away. And in January of last year, the
PLA, in an unmistakable display of military power, destroyed one of
China's old weather satellites with a ground-based missile.
Beijing's military has also started to boast about its new weapons and
war-fighting capabilities. Peace Mission 2007, cooperative military
exercises in Central Asia in August, was China's first large-scale
foreign military deployment, and recent military maneuvers, apparently
rehearsals to take Taiwan and disputed islands in the South China Sea,
were remarkable in scope and sophistication.
China's new ambitions have been confirmed by Hong Yuan, a military
strategist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who noted a
significant departure from Beijing's prior posture. China, he said in
October, intended to project force in areas "way beyond the Taiwan
China's military assertiveness has been matched by tougher diplomacy.
Last year, a series of high-level meetings showed that Beijing has moved
closer to Moscow to cement their "friendship for generations"
and confirm their opposition to American initiatives, especially to stop
the Iranian nuclear program.
China's sustained campaign against German Chancellor Angela Merkel for
meeting the Dalai Lama in September is also notably intense. China even
threatened military and political responses over economic disputes --
such as those relating to market barriers and intellectual property
piracy -- at last month's session of the "Strategic Economic Dialogue,"
the high-level talks between the U.S. and China.
The Kitty Hawk port call fits into this pattern. In the past, this snub
would have merely been the product of petulance. Today, it is another
indication of a change in China's approach to the world.
Last month, Washington and Beijing agreed to put the Kitty Hawk and
similar incidents behind them. Now, the challenge for the U. S. is to
recognize that Chinese attitudes have turned a corner, and to craft new
policies in response.
Mr. Chang is the author of "The Coming Collapse of China" (Random House,