COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | JOHN PATRICK FORD

Is China on a path to conquer or partner with the world?

The not-so-surprising announcement naming the new head honcho of the Chinese government at the Communist Party conclave held every five years finally eased global suspense. Xi Jinping took over more control of the political and military powers than any predecessor since Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

With the potential shakeup in leadership, China has continued to be the headliner at many forums and seminars, even during a presidential campaign year. Whether it’s the impact on global economy or the military threat in the Pacific, the shifting policies of the communist leaders in transition make the Western world and China's Asian neighbors uneasy.

As a military adviser to the Pentagon during his 35-year tenure in the U.S. Army, retired Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry became an expert on China affairs. He spoke to a group at University of California, San Diego in October about the Asian powerhouse’s national security strategy and military modernization. His predictions for the coming decades in the Pacific were chilling.

When Eikenberry spoke to civilian audiences while in military service, his remarks were highly restricted.

“You could put them on a 3-by-5 card,” he quipped.

About all he was allowed to say years ago was that China was a big and important country. That wasn’t helpful for American companies seeking business connections in China or for government officials to keep diplomatic relations under control.

It's so far, so good for diplomacy as China has emerged from its isolation. Times have changed as a new wave of communist leadership comes into power that might rock the boat. There have been 29 “issues” with China’s neighbors since 1979, of which 17 were compromised. Currently Taiwan and U.S. naval presence in the Eastern Pacific are festering, Eikenberry warned.

After his military retirement, Eikenberry was appointed ambassador to Afghanistan in 2009. He currently is a distinguished lecturer at Stanford University. He was in San Diego to address students in the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies and the Dean’s Roundtable at UC San Diego.

Reaching beyond the military aspects of future relations with China, the speaker reviewed the extended period of double-digit economic growth, making China the second largest economy in the world by overtaking Japan several years ago. The average growth rate since 1978 has been 7 percent, he reported, but has declined since the onset of the current recession. Future growth will require more energy, water and raw materials, putting a strain on the nation’s resources.

It seems that China’s governmental control extends from two powerful political groups — the People’s Liberation Army, the military hierarchy, and the People’s Republic of China, ruled by the communist government. To outsiders, the army reflects the Mao Zedong doctrine — political power comes out of the barrel of gun. Eikenberry sees this as the real threat to peace in Asia.

It is the top priority of the People’s Liberation Army to push Western forces out of China’s realm of influence in the Eastern Pacific. Besides the dispute with South Korea over the rightful ownership of some uninhabited rock islands between the two countries, China is rattling its sword over any other military presence within an offshore imaginary line stretching from the tip of Korea to Indonesia.

The People’s Liberation Army represents the largest military force in the world with a total of 3 million in service, including 2.5 million in the standing army. China is the second largest spender on defense, amounting to 7 percent of the global total. In comparison, the United States accounts for 40 percent.

I was surprised that Mitt Romney made such a strong statement about trade with China in the last presidential debate. His comments were quite explicit about how he would deal with China’s currency manipulation and theft of intellectual property rights. The Republican hopeful said he wanted to partner with China on mutually beneficial commerce but not on unequal terms. His strong declaration may have cost him votes.

There’s no doubt that the uneven balance of trade with China and the amount of U.S. debt it holds are critical factors in making deals. Perhaps with the consistent slowing of China’s economy since 2010, trade negotiations will be on a more level playing field.

The Economist predicts that China’s protracted slowdown has finally run its course. The third-quarter GDP growth hovered at 7.4 percent, the lowest since early 2009, but it may continue in the 7 to 8 percent range. Once again, China’s economy will defy its doubters, who have long expected a dramatic investment bust.


Ford is a freelance writer located in San Diego. He can be reached at johnpatrick.ford@sddt.com.

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