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Dispute with Japan highlights China's foreign-policy power struggle

China's government cancels high-level talks with Japan, following Japan's announcement that it will hold a Chinese fishing boat captain for another ten days.
Disputed island chain, Senkakus or Diaoyu Islands
Gene Thorp/ The Washington Post

China's main nuclear power corporation wants to build a one-gigawatt nuclear power plant in Pakistan even though it appears to be a violation of international guidelines forbidding nuclear exports to countries that have not signed onto the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or do not have international safeguards on reactors. Pakistan has not signed the treaty.

"We have never had this situation before," said Huang Ping, the director of the Institute for American Studies at China's Academy of Social Sciences. "And it is troubling. We need more coordination among all agencies, including the military."

U.S. reaction

The U.S. government is trying to adapt to this new China with a mixture of honey and vinegar.

In July, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton talked tough with China about its claims to the whole of the South China Sea, joining with Vietnam and 10 other Southeast Asian nations to criticize China's recent aggressive behavior in that strategic waterway.

That message - that China should ensure freedom of the seas and negotiate disputed claims peacefully - is expected to be reinforced Friday when President Obama meets in New York with leaders from Southeast Asian nations. Several U.S. officials said the People's Liberation Army and China's state-owned oil companies had been driving China's more forceful claims to the sea.

U.S. officials have also moved to establish more personal connections with Chinese officials. Last month, Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg, the second-ranking U.S. diplomat, spent a full day with Cui Tiankai, one of 12 assistant Chinese foreign ministers, taking him to the Inn at Little Washington, a restaurant in Virginia. The entourage proceeded to a 30-acre farm belonging to a senior State Department official, where Cui took a ride on a tractor. And in an attempt to engage more Chinese stakeholders than in the past, Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner led the largest-ever delegation of U.S. officials to Beijing in May.

Several factors account for the rise of competing interests. President Hu Jintao has led the Communist Party for eight years, but it is not clear that he has ever been fully in control. After Hu took power in 2002, his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, stayed on as chief of China's military for two years. And Hu was the top man in a nine-member Politburo standing committee, but at least five of the seats were occupied by Jiang's allies.

"This is a time when the Chinese government is weak," said Shen Dingli, the executive dean of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. "As a result, different interest groups have been unleashed in a less coordinated and less centralized way."

Simultaneously, the influence of China's Foreign Ministry is waning. Dai Bingguo, the current foreign policy supremo has no seat on the powerful 25-member Politburo; the military has two, and the state-owned sector has at least one.

While there is competition across ministries in China, U.S. officials have focused on the gap between the civilian side of the government and the People's Liberation Army.

In recent months, military officers have begun to air their views on foreign policy matters, seeking to define China's interests in the seas around the country.

Gen. Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the army's general staff, has blasted the United States for its involvement in the South China Sea. And in August, Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan lashed out at the United States for reportedly planning to deploy the aircraft carrier USS George Washington in the Yellow Sea for joint exercises with South Korea. (The George Washington was subsequently sent to the Sea of Japan, farther from China.)

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