Monday, February 8, 2010

Increased Tensions with China Disturbing but Not Surprising

In the last month or so, relations between the United States and China seem to have taken a sharply negative turn. When looking over the geopolitical situation of the world, a sound argument can be made that the Sino-American relationship is the most important one in the world, so any trouble in the relationship has to be taken seriously.

The sudden downturn in relations was highlighted when it was announced that the United States would sell a weapons package worth $6.4 billion to Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province. The package included Patriot air defense missiles, Blackhawk helicopters, and communications equipment for Taiwan's F-16 fighters. Despite the fact that these weapons are mostly defensive in nature, China has loudly protested the move and suspended contacts between the American and Chinese militaries.

Taiwan is a democracy under threat of invasion from the world's most powerful autocracy, so a case can be made that selling arms to them is not only good business, but a moral imperative. Had the United States not supplied Taiwan with the necessary tools to defend itself against a Chinese attack, the island would have long since fallen to China, and the people who today live under a democracy would instead be living under tyranny.

There have also recently been several acrimonious exchanges between America and China on the subject of trade. The United States accuses China of keeping its currency at an artificially low value, allowing cheap Chinese exports to flood the American market while hindering the entry of American products into the Chinese market. The Sino-American trade imbalance is absurdly tilted in favor of China, resulting in a long-term flow of wealth from us to them. It's a situation that cannot be allowed to continue.

There are numerous other bones of contention between the two powers. President Obama is scheduled to meet with the Dalai Lama, against Chinese protests. The United States is not happy with China's opposition to stronger sanctions against Iran or its position on an international agreement on global climate change. Indeed, the list of problems between the two countries seems to go on forever.

For all this rhetoric, nothing has happened in Sino-American relations in recent months that hasn't happened many times before. China, having recovered from the economic downturn more quickly than the rest of the world, is simply feeling confident and wanting to throw its weight around a little bit. In the grand scheme of things, it's nothing to be concerned about.

But what of the long-term Sino-American relationship and its impact on the wider world. Any rational observer of the global geopolitical scene can see that China's power is on the ascendent while that of America is beginning to wane. In and of itself, the relative decline of American power is not something that should worry 21st Century Jeffersonians, and indeed will have some positive benefits (no temptation to invade and occupy unthreatening countries, for example). But the fact that the rising power is clearly China, potentially the most powerful autocracy the world has ever seen, certainly raises eyebrows.

The United States should never kow-tow to China, but it should also strive to remove potential points of dispute. Eventually, the desire for freedom that is basic to human nature will liberate China from itself, but until then, we need to keep a wary and respectful eye on China.

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