China the Aggressor?

A look at how China may be thinking about its sphere of influence—and American ambitions.

Strategic trends on the Korean peninsula have generally been favorable to us. While Kim Jong Il has foolishly raised tensions and rejected our proposals for Dengist economic reforms, our ability to shape the post-Kim leadership transition in the North grows stronger. Ten years ago we provided 50% of North Korea’s food and fuel; today the numbers are closer to 80%. South Korean economic dependence on China has also grown and President Roh Moo-hyun weakened U.S.-Korea-Japan ties in recognition of this (though he did reject our proposal for a China-DPRK-ROK trilateral forum to replace the U.S.-Japan-ROK Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group, or TCOG). Recently, however, we may be seeing some reversal of these positive trends. After the North Korean sinking of the South Korean corvette (an assessment we share with the United States and ROK but cannot make public), the rightist elements within South Korea and the Obama administration began a campaign against North Korea at sea in waters critical to China’s strategic interests. Premier Wen reported from his trilateral summit with President Lee Myung-bak of Korea and Naoto Kan of Japan in June that the Japanese and Koreans appeared closely aligned on the issue and that China was becoming isolated. We must counter these setbacks by encouraging a return to the Six Party Talks and a quick end to pressure tactics, by urging North Korea to cease provocative actions, and by protesting through media outlets and friends of China in Washington against any effort to turn this anti-North Korea campaign into a China containment strategy.

In terms of other external alignments, there are signs that Washington has been moving closer to Europe under Merkel and Sarkozy based on a shared “China threat” assessment. However, recent economic and political developments have rendered the EU an inward-looking and internally divided actor in the new multipolar diplomacy. We can no longer count on Europe to be a counterbalance against American unipolarity as we could in the days of Chirac and Schroeder, but neither should we worry that Europe will coalesce behind any strategy to contain China.

ASEAN is also an inward looking and divided actor with even less cohesion than the EU. We have enormous influence in Southeast Asia because of economic interdependence, free trade agreements, and the ability to shape ASEAN deliberations through Cambodia, Laos and sometimes the Philippines. Singapore has been playing a double game, telling us that they wish to see more Chinese economic leadership in the region while urging the Americans to increase their diplomatic and military presence. We have little choice but to tolerate the public musings of the Mentor Minister in Singapore. Indonesia is returning as a major factor in ASEAN politics, divided between its Islamic, democratic and developing nation status. We must emphasize common cause with Indonesia based on the last of these, in the spirit of the Bandung conference. Malaysia under Najib could become a problem for us, and the Prime Minister’s embrace of Washington must be monitored carefully. Vietnam remains an insolent southern neighbor and is attempting now to draw the United States in to strengthen its illegitimate claim to the South China Sea. However, elements within the leadership troika in Hanoi may become more sympathetic to their common ideological interests with China after the leadership change in Vietnam’s January Party Congress. We will fully utilize party-to-party ties to achieve a positive outcome in bilateral relations with Vietnam. Overall, we will continue to leverage specific bilateral relationships and reject efforts by ASEAN to negotiate anything other than economic agreements as a single entity.