China in a Global Context over Half a Century: Peter Harris Continues His Review of China's Place in the World by Looking at Its Response to Changes in the International Order Following the Demise of the Soviet Union

By Harris, Peter | New Zealand International Review, May-June 2017 | Go to article overview

China in a Global Context over Half a Century: Peter Harris Continues His Review of China's Place in the World by Looking at Its Response to Changes in the International Order Following the Demise of the Soviet Union


Harris, Peter, New Zealand International Review


Following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Beijing adjusted to the new situation and ensured that China would not share the fate of Soviet communism. While China has positioned itself as a strong, independent power, its security and well-being have continued to depend above all on its relations with the United States. These relations, never particularly easy, are now entering a demanding and unpredictable phase. Since the advent of the Trump administration disturbing, but not irresistible, tendencies have been discernible in US-Chinese interaction, with trust issues in particular now increasingly to the fore.

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During and after the Tiananmen crisis in June 1989 China bucked the global trend, and Chinese Communism stayed intact. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990-91 came as a deep shock to Beijing, the reverberations of which are still being felt today. But Chinese leaders soon accepted it as irreversible, and set about ensuring that China's own fate would be different.

In the aftermath of Tiananmen Beijing and Washington slowly came around to taking a new, less ambitious approach to their relationship. In China economic reforms were reinstated at the urging of Deng Xiaoping, now in his final years of power. In America President Bill Clinton gave up trying to link trade and human rights. He came to see how unrealistic it was to link the two concerns together. As the 1990s passed successive governments in China came to worry less about US-induced 'peaceful evolution', despite the warnings of some Party Cassandras, and to concentrate more on new, more demanding phases of the reform process, helped internally by the leverage of China's entry into the World Trade Organisation.

This is not to say that then and later there were not moments of stress. Three in particular stand out. The first was the Taiwan crisis of 1995-96, when the then Taiwan leader Lee Teng-hui, head of the Guomindang, visited the United States, ending a ban on such visits. Beijing regarded this as crossing a red line, and conducted missile tests close to Taiwan Island. In response Clinton ordered an aircraft-carrier battle group to the Taiwan Strait, in a signal of resolution that helped bring the crisis to an end. It was a reminder that more than two decades after Nixon's visit to China Taiwan remained a core concern of Chinese leaders. It also raised the question, never explicitly answered, of how far Washington would go in a crisis to defend Taipei.

Embassy bombing

The second moment of stress was in 1999, when US forces bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in the course of NATO and US military action in Serbia. Washington insisted the bombing was accidental. Beijing rejected this, and the incident provoked a burst of Chinese anger. Here again, half forgotten by this time, was the powerful Chinese nationalism that had erupted in the May 4th Movement of 1919. Now it was showing itself again, nurtured by the Communist Party's increasing emphasis on patriotism as a substitute for Maoism.

The third moment of stress was in 2001, when a US navy spy plane was clipped by a risk-taking PLA fighter pilot, and had to land on Hainan Island in south China. The Chinese pilot was killed; the Chinese authorities detained the US crew for ten days before releasing them after a muted apology from Washington. The incident was the first real sign that US spy planes operating near the south China coast--and US activities in the South China Sea--could be a major irritant in bilateral relations. The pilot may have been a maverick, but China was beginning to push back.

There were other causes for concern, too, including persistent friction caused by what many saw as the deliberate undervaluation of the renminbi, and other allegedly unfair Chinese trade and investment practices. At the same time China's burgeoning foreign currency reserves, which grew in value from less than US$2 billion in 1978 to well over US$3 trillion by 2010, much of them actually in US dollars, created a symbiotic relationship between China and the United States that neither side wanted--or indeed can now want--to undermine. …

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