December 5, 2016 - US-China Relations

Featuring Dean Cheng

US-China Relations
Event Name US-China Relations: Coping with the Three “Nots”
Location UNLV (Barrick Museum Auditorium)
Event Date December 5, 2016, 7:30 PM
Speaker Dean Cheng
Topic US-China relations

This talk examined what our speaker called the three “nots” that mark US-China relations: Why Asia is not Europe. Why China is not the Soviet Union. And why this is not your father’s PLA (People’s Liberation Army). He also argued that US-China relations do not really analogize well to past US relations with other major powers, in no small part because the environment is so different. This event was co-sponsored by The Nevada Center on Foreign Relations.

Event summary - Opening introductions and announcements

The following is a transcription of the event. The NCFR does not guarantee the transcription accuracy of all statements made by Mr. Cheng.

Paul Ray (Vice President/COO) opened the evening and outlined the agenda for the event. Sam King (President) greeted the audience and invited members to get more involved with NCFR activities through membership and other forms of support.

Senad Hrustanovic (Chairman/CEO) summarized the organization’s recent accomplishments and outlined plans for future events. He also clarified the mission of NCFR and its executive policy of maintaining high standards in terms of addressing the most important foreign affairs developments by engaging the most knowledgeable topic experts. Next, he reminded the audience about other NCFR events that were hosted in Las Vegas, highlighting the impressive credentials of past speakers.

Finally, Mr. Hrustanovic introduced Mr. Dean Cheng, Senior Fellow of the Heritage Foundation, and outlined his highly-recognized expertise on the subject matter of U.S./China relations.

U.S./China Relations: Coping With the Three “Nots”

Mr. Cheng began his speech by explaining the importance of how to think about U.S./China relations. A primary theme was highlighting how China is not like the USSR, and that we should think differently about China’s goals, ambitions and insecurities.

China cares a lot about territorial claims, much more than ideology

Background information about the cold war is important: specifically, the geopolitical climate between Vietnam, Korea and China is somewhat unresolved since the Berlin Wall came down. This part of the world is still very much divided ideologically. However, it is not just ideology that divides Asia. The physical boundaries not quite set either. Taiwan, Vietnam and others have land claims in the South China Sea.

Mr. Cheng noted that these land disputes are “zero sum problems.” That is, when it comes to claiming territory, someone wins and someone loses. Consequently, border issues are a current source of tension in China. Regarding the nature of formal and informal alliances, China chooses bilateral ties. They prefer to only deal with nations in 1-on-1 manner.

China is not the Soviet Union

The USSR was a global power with a network of international bases and a strong ideology that it tried to spread throughout the world. However, China is not a global military power; it’s a regional military power. China is currently opening one base in Djibouti, but this footprint does not compare to the former USSR.

Instead, China's global leadership is much less ideological. Economics plays a much more important role. China is not exporting ideas, but goods and services to the rest of the world. It’s economically linked to every nation on earth in terms of trade. This clear focus on economics is what makes China a tougher opponent than the USSR was. China ultimately recognized the failure of the USSR, and is asserting its power from a sustainable and strategic standpoint - manufacturing.

China’s hegemonic goals are focused on production, culture and other avenues (aside from military might). The PRC wants cultural security and comprehensive national power - and the U.S. challenges this.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is a communist party military organization

Unlike other national militaries, the PLA is a party army. Officers swear to the party, not the government (in traditional terms). In China, there are two core facets of government with a clear power dynamic between them:

  • Government officials: implement policies and govern the nation
  • Communist party (CCP): set the policies and tell the government to implement them

Ultimately, policy setting is made by the communist party. The CCP is comprised of 80 million people. Within the ranks, there are 400 central committee members. This central committee is then represented by the standing committee, which is only seven people.
This standing committee of seven people makes the major decisions.

China’s ambitions, opportunities and challenges

China is waging wars in new ways by focusing on strategy, not attrition. While China used to rely on having a large military force that could withstand high casualty counts, it doesn’t rely on bodies as much. In fact, China studied the wartime principles of the U.S. very closely, and adapted to use technology instead of bodies. Mr. Cheng labeled any conflict between the U.S. and China as “asymmetric warfare.” Finally, China is not so interested in a conflict with the U.S.

However, China does face challenges in terms of cultural security and economic progress. After all, it’s difficult to keep growing at 7% per year, year-over-year. China does also have lots of cash, and its buying U.S. debt because of guaranteed returns.

Questions from audience members

The following are select questions raised by members of the audience, as well as a rough transcription of Mr. Cheng’s replies.

Question #1: President-elect Donald Trump recently took a phone call with the leader of Taiwan call. Why is this an issue?

Answer: China comes down on anyone that gives attention to Taiwan. China is the bigger fish in the area, and generally disapproves. The situation wasn't big deal at first, but when it received press attention it became an issue for the leadership.

Question #2: Is it possible that Mr. Trump will raise trade tariffs (for Chinese goods coming into the U.S.)? Given Mr. Trump's anti-China stance, is it likely he will follow through?

Answer: We are dealing with hypotheticals of rhetoric from election and it wouldn’t be compliant with the WTO -  so probably not.

Question #3: What is the role of China in North Korea's decline?

Answer: North Korea is opaque about its internal issues. China has limited information and is not concerned about North Korea’s security, but refugees (starving people). An influx of refugees could start tipping populations. Ultimately, China has an incentive in keeping them alive instead of letting them fail. China keeps them on life support, but don't give them enough resources to be a regional influence.

Question #4: Are china's investments political or genuine? Are the foreign investments about returns or politics?

Answer: Oil, food and other items are genuine needs because China values the stability of supplies. It’s most likely a mix of politics and resource supply. It creates jobs and such since they bring their own workforce to foreign lands.

Speaker Highlight

Dean Cheng

Dean Cheng, Senior Research Fellow, Asian Studies Center, The Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and The Heritage Foundation. Image source: Heritage.