Friday, April 16, 2010
The stomach-churning descent of the Chinese-American roller-coaster should concern everyone
IT’S official then. The world’s most important relationship is back on the rails, after weeks of major wobbles. That is the message conveyed by the attendance of Hu Jintao, China’s president, at Barack Obama’s nuclear-security summit in Washington this week. Just a short while ago, the United States’ relationship with its second-biggest trading partner was on ice. Chinese officials refused diplomats’ requests for meetings. Telephone calls went unreturned. China suspended most military relations. Mr Hu’s attendance in Washington looked in doubt. A no-show would have given the finger to the American-led international order.
Now, both sides talk of putting the unfortunate period behind them, stressing the need to look to the future. The “Strategic and Economic Dialogue”, the two countries’ high-level forum, will resume in May, when the treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, leads a delegation to Beijing. Now that Mr Geithner has tactfully postponed the publication of a report that might have condemned China for manipulating its currency, hints are growing that China will start to allow the yuan to appreciate, as America’s Congress noisily demands. Above all, improved relations appear to have won China’s acquiescence in a further round of American-led sanctions on Iran for its nuclear rule-breaking. Hitherto, China has not even countenanced discussion of the issue in the United Nations Security Council.
“Future-oriented relations”, then. But though both sides say they have put it behind them, the recent past says a lot about the future. In his first year in office Mr Obama waged a charm offensive towards China, inviting it to join America in tackling global problems. That counted for precious little at the Copenhagen summit on climate change, when Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, sent a junior official to lecture the leader of the free world. Mr Obama then committed two wicked sins. In January he approved a package of arms for Taiwan, worth over $6 billion. And in February he met the Dalai Lama. Mr Obama had violated China’s “core interests”, even its sovereignty. The freeze set in.
The United States was not the only country to fall foul of a new assertiveness in Chinese diplomacy, and a prickliness in dealings with the world. Sino-British relations unravelled in late 2009 when China executed a British drugs mule with apparently severe mental problems. China’s neighbours also felt the heat. China bullied Cambodia into handing back 22 Uighurs seeking political asylum. To some, China seemed to be abandoning Deng Xiaoping’s keep-your-head-down policy of taoguang yanghui—literally, hide brightness, nourish obscurity.
Mr Hu’s trip to Washington undermines that conclusion. What the Washington Post calls an “intensely choreographed” series of moves to get bilateral relations back on track suggests no radical change has taken place. It also underscores how China wants to work within the international order, not challenge it. Taoguang yanghui, a Chinese official insists, is alive and well.
If so, what was going on earlier this year? One factor, says Zhu Feng of Peking University, was hubris. With a robust economy, some Chinese had imagined the gap with America was closing fast. Rather than focus on the fragilities arising from growth, such as social unrest, corruption and scepticism over one-party rule, they dwelt instead on America’s dependence on China, as a manufacturer and as a buyer of Treasury securities. They wrongly equated mutual dependence with unilateral leverage.
What’s more, says Mr Zhu, it was “stupid” of the government to label American actions on Taiwan or Tibet as affecting core interests. The sale of weapons to Taiwan (defensive in nature and in the context of a huge mainland build-up) was well-flagged and not excessive. As for the Dalai Lama, can Chinese leaders seriously expect American presidents not to meet him? The answer, by implication, is no: in private, apparatchiks say their language was actually less strident than on previous occasions. Thus China boxes itself in with such reactions, says Mr Zhu. Diplomacy should “explore the possibilities” not just “highlight the rigidity”.
Other earlier assertiveness should also be reassessed. The same Chinese official says of the drugs-mule case that China was “clumsy” in explaining itself. With luck, she says, China will consider defendants’ medical condition in future. More broadly, she argues, much of China’s perceived prickliness is actually a gaucheness at being thrust into new global leadership roles. Copenhagen is a fine example. Chinese diplomats are unused to fast-moving negotiations. Even senior leaders lack authority to make decisions. Mr Wen was thus in a bind. In danger of humiliation, he sent a lackey to sit in for him. This, the official says, is the price of an intensely bureaucratic process of government.
She and other officials also argue that even a one-party state is constrained by public opinion, including internet nationalism. Fine, as far as it goes. That public debate of sorts takes place in China is welcome, except for one nagging thing. About the debate within the highest political organ in the land, the nine-member standing committee of the Politburo, nothing is known—other than that, had it been in agreement this year, Sino-American relations would not have taken their lurch for the worse. Such strident nationalism would not have been heard in public without tacit support from at least one standing-committee member.
That should worry the United States, wondering for three decades how to smooth the roller-coaster ride of its relations with China—the latest downward whoosh appeared to come out of a clear blue sky. It also ought to worry everyone else looking to the world’s second-biggest economy, its biggest polluter and its biggest buyer of oil from Iran for clarity over how China intends to help play its role as a global leader. The Economist