Has China realized it overplayed its foreign policy hand?

Has China realized it overplayed its foreign policy hand?

The Chinese government is secretly reaching out to the Obama administration with the message that they want to improve strained U.S.-China relations ahead of President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington next January.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs confirmed Thursday that the Chinese Communist Party leader will make a state visit to Washington to hold a summit with President Obama in January, although no specific date has been set. Hu and Obama met Thursday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, amid increasing regional angst at what the Obama administration and several East Asian countries see as China’s increasingly aggressive and arrogant foreign policy.

Recently, the Chinese have been sending out "Track 2" messages, or informal communiqués, to the United States, indicating that they now want to restart military-to-military relations, which were established in 2009 but cut off by Beijing earlier this year, an administration official told The Cable. In response, the administration is dispatching an interagency team led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Schiffer to Beijing next week to meet with Chinese officials.

The Obama administration does not want the military relationship between the two countries to become a bargaining chip that the Chinese can use to voice their displeasure with U.S. policy. Their argument is that military cooperation is in both countries’ interests — not a reward. If China agrees to restart cooperation without any direct incentives, that’s a win for the Obama team.

"From our perspective we believe a stable and reliable mil to mil relationship is in the interests of both countries," the official said. "We want something that is continuous through times of friction, with crisis management mechanisms to avoid conflict. The lack of consistent dialogue increases the risks of miscalculation or misunderstanding."

There are several recent actions by the Chinese that have alienated their neighbors. In addition to trying to assert control over the South China Sea, a move that angered Southeast Asian leaders, Beijing also ruined its relationship with South Korea by supporting North Korea after the sinking of the South Korean ship Cheonan.

This month, China took retaliatory measures against Japan after Tokyo arrested a Chinese boat captain for ramming his ship against Japanese Coast Guard boats near the disputed Senkaku Islands. This is another example of what many see as Beijing overplaying its hand and taking its new international confidence too far.

"This sort of behavior by the Chinese is not exactly winning hearts and minds in the region. You can have a policy difference without engaging in dangerous behavior," the official said.

The Obama administration has made a deliberate and calculated shift in its approach to China over the last few months, deciding to resist more forcefully Chinese efforts to expand their influence and control over regional issues, and to coordinate their China policy more closely with regional allies and partners.

The first public display of this new approach surfaced when Defense Secretary Robert Gates lambasted the Chinese People’s Liberation Army for cutting off military to military relations during his trip to Singapore in May.

"The PLA is significantly less interested in this relationship than the political leadership of China," Gates said after being refused permission to visit China as part of that trip.

The second major public display of the Obama administration’s new approach was when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shocked the Chinese leadership by announcing that the United States would lead a multilateral effort to resist Chinese claims of ownership of the South China Sea. Several Southeast Asian nations rose up in support of the U.S. action.

"The Obama administration’s approach to the South China Sea was a very important and well-crafted response to Chinese assertiveness. Such strength is a vital element of our China strategy, and sends a message to Beijing that the United States will protect its interests," said Abe Denmark, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

China watchers see Beijing’s secret outreach to Washington as a realization that they overplayed their hand and are now trying to do some damage control.

"There was that period toward the end of last year and the beginning of this year when the popular thinking in China was that the U.S. had run its course and China had more leverage and so can push their agenda a bit. Now there’s a move to tamp down the Chinese sense of triumphalism," said Charles Freeman Jr., who holds the Freeman Chair (no relation) for China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Freeman sees the administration’s shift as not really a change in policy so much as a change in attitude.

"[The Obama administration] has less interest in sucking up and showing deference to China, because that didn’t work, but there’s been no official shift in policy. It’s just that they’re a little fed up with the arrogance," he said.

Not all China hands are convinced that Beijing is ready to play nice, especially in light of the ongoing spat with Japan, in which Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen has committed the United States to support Tokyo. 

"After this latest case with Japan, they haven’t learned very much," said Dan Blumenthal, a former Pentagon official who worked on China policy and is now with the American Enterprise Institute. "I don’t think there’s a realization in China that they’ve overplayed their hand. They’re causing all the countries around the region to fear them and want more involvement by the U.S."

Many analysts see China’s aggressiveness as an indication that the PLA is gaining influence inside the Chinese system in the run up to a 2012 leadership transition. The Washington Post reported Friday on the various tensions pulling and pushing policy within the sprawling Beijing bureaucracy.

The one thing the administration, panda huggers, and China hawks can all agree on is that nobody really knows what Chinese intentions are regarding the United States and what exactly this latest outreach will mean.

"Schiffer and others have to go over there and figure out if this is just another attempt at warm and fuzzies or if there’s something real there," Freeman said.