Thursday, August 27, 2009

China Gives the US a Way to Save Face

We often hear scholars and policy wonks ask the question of what kind of power China will be in terms of international relations. We attempt to put them into our Western-derived boxes such as realist, liberal, status quo, etc.

I think China is increasingly showing us that it will not fit into our traditional boxes. While it may at times exhibit realist or liberal behaviors, at its roots, China is what it has always been: a Chinese power.

Such Chineseness was on display today as China's Ministry of Defense summed up two days of maritime safety meetings with the US military:
The way to resolve China-US maritime incidents is for the US to change its surveillance and survey operations policies against China, decrease and eventually stop such operations. (See Financial Times story here.)
Notice what they did not say. They did not make demands for what we can be certain they really want, which is an immediate end to US surveillance. Rather, China is offering the US a face-saving way out of this. As China suggests, the US can begin to decrease such operations, then eventually end them.

This assumes, of course, that, at some point in the future, China will be in a position to force the US to stop such surveillance in its own backyard. China itself seems quite certain that, at some point, the US won't be there anymore. The only question, from their point of view, is whether the US gradually and voluntarily ends such surveillance in the near future, or China ends it in the longer term.