- - Monday, June 22, 2015


Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew sat down Monday with their Chinese counterparts at an annual meeting, as prescribed in an agreement made in 2009, to talk about bilateral co-operation in their relations. They meet this year amid growing differences. The transformation of the Chinese regime is a new worrying element in that relationship.

China is clearly changing its goals in Southeast Asia. Official Chinese documents now call publicly for a further integration of military strategy in all infrastructure expansion, to guide the direction of civilian enterprises. This is nothing new. There’s an ancient aphorism in the region that “when China spits, Asia swims.” What is new is the aggressive thrust of new policy.

The Chinese side in the talks this week is represented by State Councilor Yang Jiechi, a veteran diplomat and Mr. Kerry’s counterpart in Beijing, and Vice Premier Wang Yang, a rising star in the Communist Party and a major technocratic reformer.

With growing Congressional criticism of the Obama administration’s China strategy, Daniel Russell, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, says the U.S. agenda will include discussion of differences over trouble in the South China Sea, cyber security and human rights. Given President Obama’s reputation as a tiger tamer in the Middle East, the rest of the world can only hope for the best.

American-Chinese differences are rising in all these areas. A recent Beijing public statement on its construction of military-capable bases on shoals hundreds of miles south of Mainland China, flatly rejected protests of the United States and nations of the region. Strong hacking attacks within the past two weeks, against the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, are believed to be the work of the Chinese, whom the U.S. identified in similar attacks last year. The United States will again bring up Beijing’s miserable record of violations of human rights; President Xi Jinping, entering his third year in office, continues to tighten the screws on the Chinese at home.

In a diplomatic white paper by the State Council, the Chinese government equivalent of a cabinet, China for the first time calls for military integration in civilian infrastructure, and Washington calls this “troublesome.” President Xi relies on the Communist Party’s Central Leading Group on Foreign Affairs, with many “princeling generals”, for day to day advice and counsel on adventuring abroad. China-watchers speculate that the princelings have led the aggressiveness over the past two years, including the declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea, planting oil rigs within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone and the construction of airstrips in the Spratly Islands off the Philippines and Vietnam.

If these moves are coupled with a rapidly growing military — including a call in the same white paper for undisclosed increases in China’s 4.6 military reserves, public statements from military figures in the controlled media calling for China’s adherence to the “charismatic culture” of the military, the specter of an increasingly militarized China becomes more than worrisome.

Asians with long memories who have carefully read the history of the region, are naturally reminded of an earlier attempt to bully Asia into line. Shorn of the euphemistic language that fooled no one, Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere led inexorably to bad things.

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