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    Greater China
     Jan 12, 2013


Hagel cordial, but outdated on China
By Brendan O'Reilly

News of Chuck Hagel's nomination to Secretary of Defense has been warmly received in China. Hagel, like most of the contemporary leadership of the American military, favors closer engagement with his counterparts in the People's Liberation Army. China's top leadership has interpreted Hagel's recent public statements as reassuring signals of American cordiality.

But Hagel has also displayed a significant degree of misunderstanding of China's contemporary international position. As US forces focus on Asian deployments, the military aspect of

 
Sino-American ties is an increasingly vital facet of the world's most important and dynamic bilateral relationship.

The English-language China Daily was quick to laud the Obama administration's nomination. A story entitled "Hagel looks ready to work with China" features numerous reassuring statements by Hagel regarding China's rise. The story furthermore quoted Shen Dingli, a specialist on international relations at Fudan University, praising the former Republican Senator from Nebraska: "I see Chuck Hagel is a good candidate. He had the honesty to oppose the Iraq War - a moderate and respectful Republican." [1]

China's optimism regarding Hagel stems primarily from the public record of the former senator. Hagel is known for candidly discussing the most pressing issues of American foreign policy. When addressing the subject of China's rise, Hagel has been particularly sanguine for an American politician:
"China is going to emerge and grow. It should; we should welcome that. They're going to be competitors, they are now, as are India, Brazil and other nations. That's OK. Trade, exchanges, relationships, common interests; all those emerging nations and economic, and strengths are all captive to basically the same kinds of things: stability, security, energy sources, resources, people. Everything that we have to have in our country to prosper, so do the Chinese." [2]
Hagel's public rhetoric towards China is balanced to the point of being almost sympathetic. He recognizes the primarily economic motivations of China's people and leaders. Furthermore, Hagel has indirectly acknowledged the development of an increasingly multipolar world, and he apparently doesn't view this trend as a dire threat to American security.

However, Hagel's moderate attitude towards China is not only based on a rational understanding of Chinese motives. Hagel, like much of the American political class, has serious doubts about China's ability (or perhaps motivation) to challenge America's preeminent global role:
"The Chinese have bigger problems though. They've got huge problems, starting with the fact that they've got 1.3 billion people, and hundreds of millions of them live in abject poverty. That means jobs, that means all the rest. They've got energy issues they're going to be living with. They are a communist, authoritarian, opaque government. There's no transparency. What they have and what they don't have, we're not quite sure. They've made tremendous strides. They are a great power today, and they going to continue to be a great power - and that's okay. But we shouldn't cower in the wake of that, or we shouldn't be concerned that they're going to take our place in the world." [3]
While acknowledging China's emergence as a "great power", Hagel highlighted the internal challenges facing the Chinese leadership. Such challenges are indeed very real, and pose a potential threat to China's rise as a global superpower. Whether these internal difficulties can slow or even stop China's recent momentum remains to be seen.

However, Hagel's reassurance that China won't "take our place in the world" is almost certainly accurate. Both historically and contemporarily, China has had little appetite for costly foreign military deployments and adventurism. If and when China supplants the United States as the Earth's most powerful nation, the Middle Kingdom is likely to exercise its power in a manner much different from the recent ways of Uncle Sam.

Dovish generals and political hawks
Increased and amicable ties between China and the United States have been a consistent goal of America's military brass for some time. In September, outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta met his Chinese counterpart Liang Guanlie in Beijing for high-level military talks. Secretary Panetta bluntly stated: "We won't achieve security and prosperity in the 21st century without a constructive US-China relationship, including a stronger military-to-military relationship". This cooperative declaration was mirrored by the words of Chinese Defense Minister Liang, who called on the two sides to "promote a new type of military relations featuring equality, reciprocity and win-win cooperation in an active and pragmatic way". [4]

Friendly declarations from America's military leaders are strongly contrasted by the harsh rhetoric of elected officials. During the recent presidential campaign, Mitt Romney promised to "crack down" on China, while President Obama accused his Republican rival of having "invested in companies that were pioneers of outsourcing to China". More recently, Senator John Cornyn of Texas condemned the Obama administration for refusing to sell a fleet of F-16 fighter jets to Taipei, saying "capitulation to communist China by the Obama administration marks a sad day in American foreign policy, and it represents a slap in the face to a strong ally and longtime friend." [5]

China's continuing rise is emerging as an important political issue in the United States. China's economic expansion is often used as a scapegoat for America's deep economic woes. However, there is also increasing discourse from elected representatives regarding the potential strategic threat that China poses to American dominance.

Publicly, the Pentagon's top brass are much more accommodating towards China. There are several reasons for this interesting dichotomy. First, America's military leadership is not directly accountable to the American electorate, and is therefore somewhat sheltered from popular fears of a rising China.

More importantly, it will be members of the military themselves who will face the dire consequences of any open conflict between the United States and China. Chuck Hagel is a Vietnam combat veteran, and he knows firsthand the horror and tragedy of war. US armed forces are pivoting towards Asia as longstanding territorial disputes heat up off China's shores. It will be increasingly vital for the Chinese and American armed forces to maintain constant communication to avoid any accidental clashes. A miscalculation by either side could lead to a dangerously volatile situation.

A skewed vision
While Hagel's nomination has been welcomed in China, and the two sides will work to improve their military relations, Hagel has also revealed some outdated thinking regarding the current position of the two powers. While touting the advantages of the United States, Hagel said:
"We have the largest, but most importantly, the most flexible and agile economy in the world. People are not trying to get into China, they're trying to get out of China. The United States is the only great country where people are trying to get into to this country for obvious reasons."
While China is still overall a source of outward migration, Hagel's blanket assertion that "people are not trying to get in to China" is significantly flawed. China is increasingly hosting economic migrants from all over the world. Every year, tens of thousands of undocumented Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Burmese workers cross into China's southern provinces in search of higher wages. A growing trend sees Vietnamese brides marrying Chinese men to enjoy a more materially comfortable life in the Middle Kingdom. In a single city in China - coastal Guangzhou - there are up to 200,000 Africans living, working, and doing business.

By no means do all of the foreigners seeking opportunity in China come from relatively impoverished countries. More than 100,000 native English speakers work as language teachers in China. Many of these instructors are essentially economic migrants from the United States - recent college graduates who left the unpromising job market in America to pursue opportunity in China's booming cities. Meanwhile, millions of Mexican migrants have left the United States in recent years and returned to their native land as the American economy continues to falter. [6]

While Chuck Hagel has been welcomed in China for his friendly rhetoric, his words have also revealed a fundamental misconception of contemporary China. The military leadership of the United States will continue to seek better lines of communication with the Chinese armed forces, as the two powers will increasingly be in potentially dangerous contact off China's shores. However, if American leaders - both military and civilian - are serious about maintaining America's global position, they would be wise to analyze their main competitor in a manner that disposes of outdated assumptions.

Notes:
1. Hagel looks ready to work with China, China Daily, January 8, 2013.
2. Chuck Hagel, in His Own Words, on US Foreign Policy Challenges, US News, January 3, 2013.
3. Ibid.
4. China, U.S enhance military relations, Xinhua, September 18, 2012.
5. China Assails US Over Alliance With Japan and F-16 Sales to Taiwan, IHT Rendezvous, December 24, 2012.
6. Net Migration from Mexico Falls to Zero - And Perhaps Less, Pew Hispanic Center, 2012.


Brendan P O'Reilly is a China-based writer and educator from Seattle. He is author of The Transcendent Harmony.

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