Chinese officials brushed off Defense Secretary Robert Gates this week on a proposed meeting to discuss looming military issues and bolster communication. Their reason? It was "inconvenient."
I would find China’s casual and indifferent response to our efforts disturbing under any circumstances. We must take care that neither China nor any other nation would so easily dismiss high-level discussions with American leadership.
But for China to act in this manner—at a time when we are facing multiple international crises in Asia alone—is deeply alarming. Moreover, the public manner in which they handled this further undermines our credibility in a tumultuous region and sparks a new sense of anxiety between the world’s lone superpower and the nation that aims to assume that title.
These hot spots should trouble China as well, and deserve careful attention. In particular, recent events on the Korean peninsula have sparked regional fears. Before the North Korean government rebuffed efforts, China was a partner with the United States and other key nations in six-party talks regarding North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. North Korea’s nuclear aims—and their nuclear tests—now continue unabated.
The Korean peninsula now faces an even more immediate threat, however, in the uneasy relations between North and South Korea. Investigations by the South Korean government found that the March sinking of one of their warships was the result of a torpedo fired on orders from North Korea. South Korea has chosen not retaliate militarily for the deaths of their 46 sailors, but tensions remain high. Just last week, North Korea further threatened South Korean ships, and economic and political sanctions continue to strain relations.
With nearly 30,000 American troops stationed in South Korea, it should be of great concern to have the Chinese summarily dismiss a meeting with our defense secretary. Our leaders should be fully engaged in an open and honest dialogue concerning the best ways to diffuse the situation and also ensure that adequate contingency plans are in place on the remote chance that further military confrontations between the South and North should occur.
More directly, the United States and China are in sharp disagreement on the matter of Taiwan. This past January, Chinese and American officials clashed on a proposed $6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan. The American government has historically supported Taiwan’s 1949 break from mainland China, and promised to defend them against invasion in a 1955 resolution. This American sale of arms to Taiwan is in stark contrast to the U.S. ban on American companies selling weapons to mainland China for the past 20 years.
With such strong disagreements between our nations on matters that impact our economic and foreign policy well-being, China’s discouraging dismissal of talks may sound curious. Some argue that it is merely diplomatic gamesmanship. However, I subscribe to the theory that with China remaining the largest holder of U.S. debt—nearly $900 billion as of March 2010—they, in part, feel emboldened to treat us as subordinates.
In order to secure our standing in the international community and take away this strategic advantage from the Chinese, our nation must reduce its rapidly growing deficit and debt burden to loan sharks such as the Chinese. To truly engage China, this administration must realize that debt reduction is as important to our security as any military weapons program. And if we do make this a national priority, perhaps in 10 years such high-level overtures will be met with greater response and respect from our friends in Beijing.