Outgoing Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen’s bumbling replies to questions by university students during his mid-July Beijing visit were symptomatic of total disarray in U.S.-China policy. Instead of clear-cut defense of the policy of no military takeover of Taiwan, the only free society in Chinese history, the admiral backed into a defense of U.S. policy as if the Taiwan Relations Act were an impediment Washington leadership had difficulty overcoming.
He did not forthrightly defend traditional American support for freedom of the seas in the face of Beijing’s outrageous claims on Southeast Asia waters, waters through which much of world commerce — including China’s vast exports — flows freely courtesy of the U.S. Navy. Nor did Adm. Mullen condemn Beijing’s support for the world’s most hideous tyranny in North Korea. Pyongyang is a threat not only to peace regionally with its buildup of weapons of mass destruction, but also worldwide through its nefarious exports — in league with the Chinese — to pariah states.
Washington’s aim with the Mullen visit was to facilitate ties between U.S. and Chinese military to reduce possibilities of accidental clashes and to focus attention on Beijing’s rapidly escalating, secret military buildup. But Beijing’s generally boorish response — little was offered beyond a promise to take part in a Mideast anti-piracy exercise — inevitably promises more misunderstanding.
That was despite the major concession that the admiral was carrying: Washington’s continued refusal to meet Taipei’s request to purchase additional fighter aircraft and submarines. U.S. arms sales for Taiwan’s defense have become the pretext for Beijing’s rejection of military courtesies. Meanwhile, China pursues a double-edged strategy of economic integration with the island even as it positions one of the world’s largest missile arrays just across the Taiwan Strait.
Adm. Mullen’s performance again demonstrates Washington’s lack of a strategic framework to deal with Beijing, given China’s centrality in a rapidly changing world and its growing arrogance. Minor but indicative: On the eve of his journey, Adm. Mullen publicly accused the Pakistani government of murdering a journalist. Even had he proof, going public in the Obama administration’s ill-conceived current media campaign against the Pakistanis only further aggravated relations with Islamabad.
Essential as Pakistan is for Washington’s pursuit of the war in Afghanistan and its worldwide counterterrorism campaign, Adm. Mullen played into Beijing’s efforts to exploit U.S.-Pakistani frictions in pursuit of its own alliance with Islamabad against India.
Adm. Mullen’s confusion not only epitomizes the lack of a coherent official U.S. policy toward “a rising China,” but also parallels increasing difficulties by American entrepreneurs in hot pursuit of the Chinese shirttail. (“If we could only persuade every person in China to lengthen his shirttail by a foot, we could keep the mills of Lancashire working round the clock,” a British commentator wrote in the 1840s.) Foreign businessmen who chase opportunities in the mythical “unquenchable” market for investment and trade leave themselves exposed to an economy without the rule of law.
As Beijing’s domestic political crackdown intensifies, fed by fears of contagion from popular revolts in the Middle East and Southeast Asia and the insecurity of next year’s Communist Party leadership succession, commercial relations with foreigners are deteriorating. The media focus on the larger economic issues: China’s vast and worrisome dollar holdings through its manipulated currency, protected markets and subsidized exports. But, increasingly, foreign companies find themselves threatened with death by a thousand cuts.
For example, Beijing backed away from its policy of price blackmail exploiting its monopoly on crucial rare earth minerals when faced with sanctions in the World Trade Organization. But after announcing exports at last year’s level of the rare elements that are essential to information technology hardware worldwide, Beijing announced new quota policies that European and U.S. trade officials condemned as in fact more restrictive than before.
Even more threatening, suddenly the whole vast, abysmally corrupt system of foreign ownership in Chinese companies through local middlemen, held corporately in overseas tax havens, has come under official “scrutiny.” The Chinese had winked at such arrangements for decades as a device to entice direct foreign investment.
Now these arrangements are being used to freeze out foreign participation as domestic companies expand with transferred technology. Coupled with expanding theft of intellectual property — the latest example being French, German and Japanese high-speed rail know-how — Beijing seems to have concluded that there are no holds barred in its seduction of foreign businesses faced with a worldwide slowdown.
• Sol Sanders, veteran foreign correspondent and analyst, writes weekly on the convergence of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at email@example.com. He also blogs at https://yeoldecrabb.wordpress.com.