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Obama officials: confusion in China about how to deal with U.S.

The visit of two senior Asia officials to China this week is being hailed as the beginning of a mending of what the State Department has called “a rough patch” in U.S.-China relations. But for those inside the Obama administration, the past weeks’ events have put on display a fascinating internal struggle in Beijing about ...

VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images
VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images

The visit of two senior Asia officials to China this week is being hailed as the beginning of a mending of what the State Department has called "a rough patch" in U.S.-China relations. But for those inside the Obama administration, the past weeks' events have put on display a fascinating internal struggle in Beijing about how to deal with the United States.

Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg (right) and National Security Council Asia Director Jeffrey Bader went to China primarily to persuade Beijing to cooperate on new sanctions against Iran. The meetings come just after the recent spats over new U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama.

The administration worked hard to minimize the impact of those two events, and sees the Chinese response as about what was expected, two officials told The Cable. Some military-to-military relations were canceled while others, like the visit of the USS Nimitz to Hong Kong, were allowed to go on as planned. The Steinberg trip itself was supposed to happen in early February but was postponed as a sort of protest -- and now China is welcoming Steinberg only weeks later.

The visit of two senior Asia officials to China this week is being hailed as the beginning of a mending of what the State Department has called “a rough patch” in U.S.-China relations. But for those inside the Obama administration, the past weeks’ events have put on display a fascinating internal struggle in Beijing about how to deal with the United States.

Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg (right) and National Security Council Asia Director Jeffrey Bader went to China primarily to persuade Beijing to cooperate on new sanctions against Iran. The meetings come just after the recent spats over new U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama.

The administration worked hard to minimize the impact of those two events, and sees the Chinese response as about what was expected, two officials told The Cable. Some military-to-military relations were canceled while others, like the visit of the USS Nimitz to Hong Kong, were allowed to go on as planned. The Steinberg trip itself was supposed to happen in early February but was postponed as a sort of protest — and now China is welcoming Steinberg only weeks later.

One senior administration Asia official said that Chinese behavior in the wake of the two diplomatic spats showed a mounting struggle between hard-liners with increased confidence and more friendly but weakened actors within the Chinese Communist Party.

“The Chinese Foreign Ministry has lost confidence in how to respond and seems to be fighting a rearguard action against those who want a tougher approach,” the official said. “There are many inside the Chinese system with an increasingly hard-line view, saying ‘It’s our time,’ while another group is saying about the U.S., ‘Don’t count these guys out, we still need them for a while.'”

The Chinese government’s responses to the Taiwan arms sales and the Dalai Lama visit came in waves, suggesting that the initial calculation was to be muted and careful, but then Beijing felt compelled to respond to domestic criticisms, including by its vast and growing online community, and take a stronger stance, the official explained.

Another administration official close to the issue said that one could see the Chinese bureaucracy churning as it sorted out how to respond to the Obama team’s actions, with hard-liners and moderates arguing over the best approach.

“Their system is having a hard time right now dealing with all the different issues on the U.S.-China agenda and there’s a certain sense of overload complicating the process,” the official explained. “We’re seeing sparks and bursts as different parts of the system work it through.”

For example, the Chinese had threatened to sanction U.S. companies due to the Taiwan arms sale, but there hasn’t been any follow-up thus far. “Was that just rhetoric or is there another shoe yet to drop?” the official asked. “We still haven’t seen how this fully plays out yet.”

Some Asia experts downplay the need to study what’s going on inside the Chinese system.

“We’re getting to a point where we’re treating China like we treated the Soviet Union. It’s the new Kremlinology,” said Michael Auslin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “What’s important is not the way China comes to its decisions, but what those decisions are.”

China hasn’t stepped up to its responsibilities regarding climate change, currency fairness, cyber security, and human rights, Auslin said. Meanwhile, he argues the Obama administration’s China policy has lacked a clear, overarching message that could be used to press the Chinese to move farther and faster in maturing as a world power.

“They’re so invested in reading the tea leaves, they don’t realize there’s not a lot of tea in the cup,” Auslin said.

The administration official said that Obama made the right move by trying to set U.S.-China relations on a steady path the first year, and in fact China had shown progress on issues like North Korea, nonproliferation, and clean-energy technology.

China’s transformation would take decades, not years, the official argued. “It’s incremental, it’s not satisfactory, but they’re moving. Whether they will get to the other side, nobody knows.”

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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