Monday, October 5, 2009

Obama Faces China Challenge

Defense News


Obama Faces China Challenge

By Wendell Minnick

TAIPEI — When Barack Obama takes the oath of office for the U.S. presidency, he will face a China more confident than the one that greeted his predecessor.

Beijing has taken the first steps toward the projection of military force in the form of anti-piracy patrols off Somalia. China is pushing forward on an aircraft carrier program, resolving its border disputes with India and Vietnam, rapidly building closer relations with Taiwan, stepping up military modernization, and sharpening its diplomatic skills on the world stage.

Yet many predict Obama will be too busy dealing with the economic crisis and conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq to give China’s growing influence much notice.

“The Obama people have enough on their plate without having the time and resources to think through ideas about building a relationship with China that could have potentially problematic regional security implications,” said Michael Yahuda, a George Washington University professor.

Former Taiwan deputy minister of defense, Lin Chong-Pin, agreed.

“The U.S. is distracted by Afghanistan and Iraq. While China is improving relations around Asia, settling border disputes, signing security and economic agreements and expanding military exchanges,” the U.S. will be struggling to keep track of China.

Despite Washington’s distaste for China’s one-party authoritarian rule, Obama’s administration will have to face the fact China and the United States are economically bound together.

China has $1.9 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, which have in part funded America’s war in Afghanistan and Iraq. As both economies slow, much of China’s enthusiasm for buying U.S. debt could dim as exports to the U.S. dwindle. This quandary has been referred to as a “balance of financial terror” that could cause internal security problems in China, as well as security concerns for the United States in the region.

“Aside from the continuing frictions over the trade itself, the issue is highly political for both sides,” said Yahuda. “Beijing is worried that the slowdown of its own economy is leading to unrest that could threaten to weaken the CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party] hold on power and it is therefore doing its best to boost exports by subsidizing exporters and favoring them in other ways, including holding down the appreciation of the currency.”

China has also been competing for natural resources, especially oil and gas. Beijing has already established agreements in Africa and Latin America for petroleum resources, in part with arms and equipment.

This could eventually result in overseas deployments of Chinese military forces to protect resources and sea-lanes. In December, China made its first naval deployment to protect maritime traffic under threat by Somali pirates.

“Of course it is highly significant as the first instance of the Chinese Navy undertaking such a far-flung blue navy operation,” Yahuda said.

“It is seen by some inside China and indeed on the outside as portending Chinese moves to defend their oil shipments, especially in critical straits such as Malacca and Hormuz.”

Also, to Washington’s dismay, China has made oil deals with nations with poor human rights records such as Sudan, and countries openly hostile to U.S. interests such as Venezuela.

Taiwan and Tibet have been a mixed bag for Washington. In 2008, Chinese troops cracked down on a revolt in Tibet. Another Tibetan crisis could complicate Obama’s efforts to better ties with Beijing. 

However, relations improved between China and Taiwan, which has lessened the likelihood of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait. This means future U.S. arms sales are in question as China and Taiwan move closer economically and politically.

Obama will have to balance continued military support for Taiwan without disrupting improving relations across the Taiwan Strait.

Though not considered a near­term scenario, bringing Taiwan under China’s security umbrella could cause problems for the United States. A “one-country, two-systems” approach to Taiwan, similar to Hong Kong, could see China establishing air and naval bases on Taiwan. Hong Kong has two Chinese Army garrisons.

However, Jason Yuan, Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to Washington, said the Hong Kong option will not work with Taiwan.

“We have an entirely different political system than Beijing,” said Yuan, representative, Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office in Washington. “Ma Ying-jeou [Taiwan’s new president] has a very clear policy of no unification, no independence and no use of force.”