Shadow Government

Good news and bad news about U.S.-China relations

Next week Chinese President Hu Jintao will travel to the United States for his eighth meeting with President Obama, his first state visit with an U.S. president, and his valedictory call on the American people before he retires as part of the Chinese leadership transition in 2012. There will be no breakthroughs, transformations, or stirring ...

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

Next week Chinese President Hu Jintao will travel to the United States for his eighth meeting with President Obama, his first state visit with an U.S. president, and his valedictory call on the American people before he retires as part of the Chinese leadership transition in 2012. There will be no breakthroughs, transformations, or stirring visions for the future of U.S.-China relations, but the trip is badly needed in terms of relationship management. It will also serve as a good opportunity for a stock-taking of U.S.-China relations.

The Good News

1. Obama Gets It
The Obama administration came into office intending to continue the broad Bush policy of engaging China based on strong alliance relationships in Asia, particularly with Japan. The Obama team hoped to build on that basic approach by establishing a more enduring formula for mutual strategic reassurance with Beijing. To set the right tone early on, the White House delayed sensitive arms sales to Taiwan and a meeting with the Dalai Lama in advance of the president’s first trip to China in November 2009 and then sought language in a joint statement in Beijing that would signal U.S. understanding of China’s "core interests" with respect to Tibet, Taiwan, and other issues. Set against the backdrop of the financial crisis and increasing confidence in China, these gestures backfired and the administration soon found itself responding to a series of assertive Chinese moves at the Copenhagen climate summit, in the South China Sea, on the Korean peninsula, and in the Sino-Japanese territorial dispute over the Senkaku or Diaoyutai Islands. To its credit, the Obama administration adjusted and spent much of 2010 reminding Beijing of the depths of U.S. strategic power and influence in Asia, as countries from India to Vietnam and Japan sought closer security ties with Washington to re-establish a stable strategic equilibrium vis-à-vis Beijing. The top national security team — Donilon, Gates, and Clinton — have now replaced the administration’s earlier dreamy visions of transformational U.S.-China cooperation on global issues with a much more hardheaded appreciation of the underlying power realities of dealing with Beijing.

2. Hu Jintao Gets It
Hu Jintao is a Dengist, which is to say that he faithfully adheres to his mentor Deng Xiaoping’s admonition that China should lay low, bide its time, and build its power. For Hu, a stable U.S.-China relationship is foundational to winning international understanding of "peaceful development" and establishment of a "harmonious society" at home. Hu knows that the power differentials between the United States and China are still enormous and that a successful state visit in Washington is indispensable if he is to cement his own shaky legacy at home and build support for continuation of the Deng line with his presumed successor in 2012, Xi Jinping. This valedictory summit in the United States has focused Hu on the irritants in the relationship. Over the past few months China has allowed the renminbi to appreciate 3.2 percent against the dollar; urged North Korea not to retaliate or react to South Korea’s December artillery exercises on the island of Yeonpyeong (which the North had bombarded in November); pledged not to backfill Western and Japanese firms divesting from Iran; pledged to work on intellectual property rights and prevent the new policy of "indigenous innovation" from freezing out U.S. firms in China; and invited Secretary of Defense Gates to reopen the on-again/off-again military-to-military dialogue through a visit to China. In exchange, Hu wants to be portrayed as a respected steward of U.S.-China relations.

The Bad News

1. The PLA Doesn’t Get It
The administration and outside experts have rightly grown concerned over the role of the People’s Liberation Army this past year. PLA generals are regularly opining on foreign-policy issues — often in nationalistic and controversial ways — without any clearance from the Communist Party leadership, let alone the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. PLA journals and Chinese netizens are citing every move by the United States, Japan, NATO, or India as part of a larger strategy designed to encircle and weaken China (frequent claims include the assertion that Hillary Clinton asked the Norwegians to give the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo). Most worrisome, aggressive PLA operations such as the January 2007 anti-satellite test and the test flight of China’s new J-20 "stealth" fighter during Gates’s visit to China, are coming as obvious surprises to China’s political leadership. Hu is chair of the Central Military Commission and the party controls senior promotions, but there is virtually no day-to-day civilian oversight of PLA operations, and it shows. Hu did not fix this problem, and reports that Xi Jinping’s advancement was delayed by the PLA suggest he may have even less luck (though some experts hope that Hu’s wife will help, since — in Pirates of Penzance fashion — she is a popular PLA singer and a major general).

2. What Exactly Did the United States Get?
Across the U.S. government, officials can point to small signs of a more positive tone in official U.S.-China discourse, but much of it may be tactical and all of it is reversible. The PLA leadership was clear during the recent Gates visit that it is prepared to sever military-to-military dialogue again in response to Taiwan arms sales or other issues. Meanwhile, the PLA military buildup and cyberoperations against U.S. targets continue unabated. The renminbi has appreciated slightly against the dollar before … and then been repegged. Beijing appears to have played a role in discouraging Pyongyang from reacting to South Korean artillery drills, but South Korean pledges to bomb the North if it did certainly played a role as well, and there is little evidence that China is moving away from its emphasis on stability in North Korea over denuclearization. Recent Chinese pledges on intellectual property rights protection and "indigenous innovation" are welcome, but the proof will be in implementation. None of this is surprising — it is in the nature of U.S.-China interactions. But the underlying structural challenges to the relationship remain.

3. Liu Xiaobo Will Get Nothing
The one area where Beijing has demonstrated zero flexibility is on human rights. Only a few years ago, Beijing would at least release prisoners of conscience or agree to new dialogues on human rights in advance of summits. The Obama administration tried on Liu, but hit a wall. At most, the administration may succeed in strengthening a human rights dialogue that is already languishing and hurting for credibility. Meanwhile, we will have our first summit (indeed, our first state visit) between a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a world leader who is imprisoning another Nobel Peace Prize laureate. This diminishing return from China on human rights is discouraging. The administration has stepped up its trade and security engagement with the rest of Asia in the wake of China’s new assertiveness. The strategy has moderated China’s actions, at least tactically. It is probably time to consider a similar approach on issues of political freedom and conscience, without which a truly enduring U.S.-China partnership will prove impossible.

Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University. He served as the senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @JapanChair. @JapanChair

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