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Time to Get Tough With China?

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
December 9, 2013
Daily Beast

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"We're being too soft on China"—such are the increasingly audible whispers of an ever mounting number of China's neighbors and U.S. foreign policy experts. They are still mostly whispering because of the enormity of such a change in policy direction. And they certainly don't wish to trigger crises. But they do feel that the U.S. needs to get tougher with Beijing. To them, China unilaterally asserts its rights and demands, doesn't budge, wears everyone down, waits and waits until everyone shrugs and goes along. Vice President Joe Biden handled his visit with Chinese rulers in the traditional manner: that is, he was strong in defending American values and concerns, but always far short of confrontation. And perhaps, Chinese leaders mistook his care as weakness. Perhaps they've seen this as weakness all along.

Or as Winston Lord, a former ambassador to China, put it: "The Chinese do not shy from provocation and count on eventual foreign forbearance. It is time to parry this pattern and be willing to risk some dustups."

Such commentary on the Biden visit did not rise above murmurs here and there. Those pushing for a tougher line toward China realize such a policy shift takes time, and can't be decided upon in the space of a week or so, the time it took to digest China's imposition of its new Air Defense Identification Zone or ADIZ over the disputed islands in the East China Sea. If Washington is to adopt a tougher stance toward Beijing, it needs a lot of methodical calculation. And U.S. diplomats would have to ensure beforehand that Asian nations would follow suit, so that Washington did not string itself out alone. The Obama administration is not near such a policy departure. And so, Biden deftly carried out his prescribed paces, perhaps disturbing no one greatly beyond the Japanese. Japan is less and less inclined to let Beijing push it around. In this regard, they're out in front of the U.S. government, but they are not alone.

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