It’s not clear who authorized the test flight of China’s new J-20 “stealth” fighter during Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ visit to Beijing, but the message was pretty clear: China has arrived — and we really don’t care what you think anymore, America.
Sure, it’s possible that Chinese President Hu Jintao didn’t know about the test flight until Gates mentioned it at their meeting, or even that Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie didn’t know either, despite the importance of his counterpart’s visit — the first by a US defense secretary since 2007.
But the jet’s high-speed taxi runs and subsequent test flight got a ton of publicity in the tightly controlled Chinese media — so someone high up in the Chinese Communist Party (which includes both civilian and military leadership) plainly decided to send a signal.
A signal sent as Hu came to Washington for a state visit hosted by President Obama, when there’s already no shortage of testy issues in US-China relations.
Beijing has made sovereign claims over the East China, South China and Yellow seas, claims that defy widely held views on freedom of navigation. The assertions have already led to some near-clashes with US forces operating in these areas.
Making China’s claims more menacing is the news of Beijing’s new anti-ship ballistic missile — a weapon that could send a US flattop to Davy Jones’ locker. Some defense experts call the missile a “game-changer.”
To that, add reports that Beijing may send a prototype aircraft carrier to sea this year — an event many said would never happen. This means the United States won’t be the only carrier navy in the vast Pacific Ocean at some point in the near future.
With its military muscle growing, China is less likely to give ground on other issues. For example, it hasn’t been helpful in dealing with its ally North Korea — which pushed the Korean Peninsula to the brink of war last year with its unprovoked sinking of a South Korean warship and shelling of an island.
Beijing’s also been unwilling to come down hard with economic sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program. It may have even turned a blind eye to the transfer — through China — of North Korean missile technology to Iran. Instead, it lets others do the heavy lifting while it keeps ready access to much-needed Iranian oil and natural gas.
Elsewhere, there are still strong concerns about fairness in the bilateral trade relationship, which results in an annual US trade deficit of more than $200 billion and a less-than-level playing field for American businesses in China.
The Chinese government subsidizes state-owned firms, boosting their competitiveness internationally; keeps the Yuan undervalued, making foreign goods more costly in China, and steals technology (or forces transfers) from foreign producers.
As China’s strength grows, don’t even think about being able to pressure it on human rights. In fact, China was able to get some 15 ambassadors to skip the recent Nobel Peace Prize ceremony honoring imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.
With its rapidly growing national power, China is not only increasingly willing to say “No” but is more than willing to make counter demands that better meet Beijing’s interests.
This isn’t to say that the United States and China can’t cooperate, but that will happen only if its suits Beijing as well. Unfortunately, the new China that is emerging is more a strong, fire-breathing dragon than a cute, cuddly panda.
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