The question is raised each year: Should China be granted most favored nation status again? The powers that be decide repeatedly that China is important to American foreign policy. Inevitably, China gets treated like a superpower and a “strategic partner,” which does not stand up to factual examination. As a matter of fact, it is the treatment of China as a superpower by America that gives it superpower status.
American foreign policy should change to treat China for what it really is: a regional power that poses threats to American interests and should be directly dealt with, not a strategic partner.
The world spotlight has recently been focused on Asia as an emerging force in global politics and economics. Since China is undoubtedly the largest military power and has the largest potential consumer base it receives a lot of attention, way beyond its real power.
Let us first target the issue of China’s military prowess. China at best has a military with a regional power projection base. It is true, China can threaten American interests in South Korea, Taiwan, South Asia and the South China Sea, where it has significant territorial disputes. However, it is unlikely that China will be able to move swiftly to take over Taiwan before the US can respond and come to Taiwan’s aid. China’s military projection is only restricted to this regional role. China cannot and does not hold any military influence outside this local theater.
It cannot, for example, be a credible threat to Indonesia or Australia. To the north, it is hemmed in by Russia; and to the west, by central Asian republics that exert a cultural pull on China’s western provinces with their Muslim majorities. To the east, it is rivaled by the US, which is not a regional entity. Additionally, Chinese defense spending is relatively limited compared to that of the United States. It’s military is also technologically inferior to the American military. These factors show that China is not a global military entity but a regional power.
This becomes even more obvious if we follow China’s tendency to oppose Western initiatives on the Security Council. China usually plays a secondary role in opposing American interests on the Security Council, often following Russia’s lead, or in the case of the initiatives against Iraq, France.
Some might argue that China does not take a lead in challenging American interests because the strategic partnership is working in America’s favor. However, that is merely a reflection of the harsh realities of the present military balance. China does not play a leading role in opposing American interests in Iraq and Yugoslavia because it simply cannot, even though it wants to. China can and does play a significant role in the Pacific region because it can.
On an economic level, China certainly has one of the largest potential consumer bases in the world. However, at present, less than 2.5 percent of American exports are to China. Taiwan, on the other hand, receives more than twice as many US exports. Japan also has a greater trade volume with America than does China. The PRC certainly does not merit the amount of attention it gets. The Asian financial crises showed that Asian markets do not have a huge influence on the global economy.
Chinese nuclear weapons are pointed towards the United States, it allegedly tries to steal American nuclear secrets and it exports arms and expertise to anti-American regimes like Iran. How can China be a strategic partner if its very actions are not suited to American interests? True, every government must follow its national strategic interests as it defines them, but if Beijing defines its interests such that they run counter to American interests, surely that cannot mean Beijing is a strategic partner?
Instead of treating China as a strategic partner, America should identify and reinforce its allies: South Korea, Japan and Taiwan have stronger economic relations with the United States than China. They should be built up and given more importance. Japan has recently shown a willingness to expand its military capacities in the face of incoming threats from China and North Korea. Additionally, any American foreign policy shift would hopefully accelerate the pace of reform within China itself if it were really willing to become a strategic ally with the United States.