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China vs. the US: Cooperation over Competition (Part 5)

(The Friends of the Columbia University Libraries sponsored a December 7, 2011 lecture by Seymour Topping, Emeritus Professor of International Journalism, on "China Faces the United States From Mao in Yenan to Korea, Vietnam, and Challenges today." Professor Topping discussed how the root experiences of the Chinese leadership, which he observed in Yenan, Mao's remote headquarters in the 1940s, influences their current behavior, policies, and intentions.) 

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By Seymour Topping                                                                                       

From Yenan onward, the Chinese leadership has been intent on restoring the traditional borders of imperial China. As early as September 1949, the Communist Party proclaimed a top priority to be the incorporation of Tibet and Taiwan into China peacefully if possible but by force if necessary. As for Tibet, subsequently, there developed added motivation for absorbing it. To sustain its economy and support its growing population, now at more than 1.3 billion, China, resource-poor, must import vast quantities of minerals. It does export rare-earth metals essential to some high tech applications—in fact, monopolizing some 97 percent of the world market. Exports otherwise consist virtually entirely of manufactured products, generating the revenue which pay for the import of minerals and other raw materials. 

In 1999, Beijing embarked on a secret seven-year geological survey of Tibet. It located large deposits of copper, iron ore, lead, and zinc as well as other minerals. Mining there is now going forward at an accelerated rate facilitated by the new railway link to the region. Similarly motivated, China today is pressing its claims to the islands of the South China Sea with a view to eventually exploiting the oil and other minerals which may lie in the sea beds.

Much concern has been expressed of the strategic implications of the build-up of China’s navy including purchase of an aircraft carrier from Russia, the first of several to be acquired or built, and a much expanded fleet of submarines, some nuclear powered. But the Chinese may very well consider the strengthening of their navy as essentially defensive. China still suffers a sense of vulnerability. Trade is its lifeblood—the bringing in of indispensable raw materials for its manufacturing base and food, much of it from the United States, to feed its burgeoning population. Again—what a paradox—it is the United States Navy which keeps guard on the sea lanes to Middle East ports. They are utilized by tankers which supply about 58 percent of China’s huge and fast growing volume of oil imports. The navy China envisions will make it less dependent on the American Navy as the keeper of those sea lanes. Beijing is already deploying destroyers to cope with the piracy off Somalia.

The United States confrontation with China on Taiwan remains the most contentious of issues between the two countries. The current military build-ups on all sides in the South China Sea and on the approaches to the Taiwan Strait inevitably heighten the danger of sea or air collision through accident or miscalculation. Recall the tension over the collision in April 2001 over the South China Sea of an American naval intelligence reconnaissance aircraft and a Chinese interceptor fighter plane.

American political and strategic policies affecting Taiwan could not be more ambiguous. President Obama in September 2009 reconfirmed the American acceptance in the Shanghai Communiqué signed by Nixon and Zhou Enlai that there is only one China embracing both sides of the Taiwan Strait. However, still in effect is Congress’s vague Taiwan Relation Act of 1979 which commits the United States to provide Taiwan with defensive arms and to maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security of Taiwan. Yet in reality, the United States adheres to a policy of strategic ambiguity neither confirming nor denying that it would intervene militarily in such any event.

In keeping with the Taiwan Relations Act, the Obama Administration like administrations before it, sold this year a $5.3 billion arms package to Taiwan consisting mainly of upgrades of Taiwan’s fighter jets. It did not agree to provide the most modern class of fighters, which Taiwan wanted. The deal induced the usual bitter complaints in China of interference, but Beijing did not cancel the military-to-military consultations entirely as it did temporarily last year.

In my view, the sale of arms packages to Taiwan, so irritating to Beijing, has more significance for the arms industry in the United States than it does for the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan is utterly dependent on the United States for defense against any Mainland military takeover attempt. Without that shield it would be entirely vulnerable to the far more powerful Mainland forces, more so now with the new batteries of missile launchers sited on the Mainland pointing at the island. Supplying arms to Taiwan makes little, if any, difference in the real military balance.  

The danger of the Mainland resorting to use of force has been very much lessened with the great expansion of trade, investment and tourist traffic between the Mainland and Taiwan. For Beijing, it is a continuation of the policy of peaceful attraction that Premier Zhou Enlai first enunciated publicly in an interview he granted me in 1971. He saw the inevitable end result as unification. The independence question will as usual be bandied about in the Taiwan’s presidential election campaigns next month. But politicians of the two contending parties must bow to what seems to be a popular trend toward closer ties with the Mainland.   

In looking to the future, there is no absolute formula for bringing about the lasting partnership with China, which President Obama says he seeks. Competition to some degree between the world’s two great poles of economic and military power may be inevitable. What experience dating back to Yenan does teach us is that frequent and comprehensive dialogue between the leaderships and free economic and cultural inter-exchanges are essential to assuring peace and mutual wellbeing. Cooperation between the two great powers is a prerequisite for the safeguarding of the planet in the age of nuclear proliferation and global warming.    

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(To read the rest of Seymour Topping's speech go to pages 1, 2, 3, 4)

Seymour Topping is the former managing editor of the New York Times, the author of On the Front Lines of the Cold War, An American Correspondents Journal from The Chinese Civil War to the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam and the Chairman of the World Policy Journal editorial board. 

[Photo courtesy of Phil King]

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