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Miscomprehending China

They don't want to be our friends.

11:00 PM, Mar 4, 2008 • By GORDON G. CHANG
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Yet there is an even more fundamental problem between China and the United States. In short, Washington and Beijing have fundamentally inconsistent objectives. Americans believe they have a role in Central and East Asia. The Chinese do not agree. To implement its grand strategy, Beijing is creating multilateral organizations, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, from which the United States is excluded. Moreover, Beijing has worked hard to separate Washington from its two military allies in the region, Tokyo and Seoul. This is, despite all the happy talk that one hears in Washington, a zero-sum contest.

Americans have sought to integrate the Chinese into the international system, to make them "responsible stakeholders," to borrow the State Department's hopeful formulation. In order to do that, we have chosen to overlook a pattern of especially dangerous conduct in Asia. We issued a letter of regret, for instance, for the Hainan incident in 2001, even though the Chinese stripped the plane of sensitive equipment and imprisoned the crew of 24 for eleven days. We said nothing when the Chinese aggressively challenged the Bowditch, an unarmed Navy oceanographic vessel, in the Yellow Sea in September 2002. Nor did we publicly complain when, in October 2006, a Chinese submarine for the first time surfaced in the middle of an American strike group and within torpedo range of its flagship. This episode, which occurred in the Philippine Sea southeast of Okinawa, was an obvious warning to the U.S. Navy to stay away from Asian waters. And periodically in the last two decades, Chinese generals have publicly threatened to incinerate American cities.

Beijing, through a pattern of conduct, could not be clearer about its intentions. China intends to project force "way beyond the Taiwan Strait," as Hong Yuan, a military strategist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said last October. Therefore, it is time for Condoleezza Rice to stop complaining about China's lack of transparency and start commenting upon the nature of its ambitions.

And it is about time we start examining our own responsibility for encouraging the very behavior that we find so troubling. Over time, we have, through our indulgent policies, created a set of perverse incentives. The Chinese engage in unfriendly behavior. We reward them. So they continue their irresponsible conduct. We reward them still more. In these circumstances, why would they change?

Need proof? In January, the Navy sent its highest officer in the Pacific, Admiral Timothy Keating, to Beijing to discuss military relations. As a gesture of good faith, Keating requested additional port privileges in Hong Kong.

What the Navy should have done is ignore the Chinese and send its ships to Singapore or Subic--anywhere but China's ports. The Chinese would have quickly gotten the message. We think that by going to Beijing and asking for port calls so soon after the November turndowns that we are proving our good will. The Chinese, however, just view us as--let me dare say the word--weak. And that's also the way that neighboring Asians see us. As a result, China's neighbors are moving closer to Beijing and distancing themselves from us.

We fundamentally misunderstand the Chinese. Unlike us, they are not impressed by displays of friendship. Like us, they respect strength. They are ruthlessly pragmatic. By adopting an overly tolerant approach, we are merely papering over problems, thereby ensuring that new incidents will occur and that differences will widen over time.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China and Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World (both Random House). He blogs at contentions.