I’m taking a break for the holidays, but here are some articles from this week in U.S.-China relations:
Commentary on U.S.–China Relations
I’m taking a break for the holidays, but here are some articles from this week in U.S.-China relations:
The news just came in that a Chinese fisherman has died and dozens were injured when Chinese fishing vessels clashed with South Korean patrol boats in disputed territory off the coast of South Korea near Gunsan city.
About 50 Chinese fishing boats were reportedly illegally fishing in the disputed territory when a South Korean ship approached them. As you see in the video, South Korean coast guard officials were then repelled back by Chinese fisherman wielding metal rods and shovels. During the confrontation, one of the Chinese vessels apparently intentionally hit the larger South Korean coast guard ship to allow the other Chinese vessels to sail back to their waters, and then capsized.
Eight people from the capsized boat were plucked from the sea, but one was unconscious and later died at a Gusan hospital, the South Korean coast guard office said in a statement.
This will undoubtedly ratchet up tensions and increase consternation between China and South Korea at a time of heightened conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Sino-ROK relations have taken a nose dive ever since the Cheonan sinking and North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong island, in which China acted cautiously in denouncing North Korean actions.
This takes on added significance in light of the South Korean military reaffirming its plans to conduct live-fire military drills near Yeonpyeong island tomorrow.
I’ve always been a pessimist when it comes to the health of China’s economic model.
During my time at the China Economist, I was amazed at how much fudging I found in China’s economic reporting, like how numbers from township, district, provincial and national levels did not match up when cross-referenced, or how it seemed that state-owned banks were funneling huge amounts of money toward investments that were highly risky or even financially unsound.
My curiosity was further piqued when I read this article in The Telegraph in which Li Keqiang, China’s soon-to-be Premier, was quoted in a 2007 Wikileaks cable as saying that China’s economic figures were “unreliable” and “artificially inflated at the local level.”
Thus, Ding Xueliang’s recent article (in Chinese) in Nanfang Zhoumou caught my eye. A professor at Hong Kong’s University of Science and Technology, Ding prognosticates his skepticism of what he calls the “chronic illness of China’s economic model.”
Here are the main points of the article:
I found many of these points particularly insightful, especially in regards to how much of China’s state-directed spending is oriented towards “maintaining political stability,” which taken to the logical next step, is saying that it is not based on sound, cost-benefit calculations, but on how to prop up China’s export industry.
I also think this ties in directly to China’s aversion to allow the RMB to appreciate. The enormous political and social clout that China’s export industry exerts has the effect of preventing fundamental shifts in investment and macro economic policy, which might lead to massive layoffs and social unrest. This has in essence forced Beijing not only to tread cautiously with this important constituency, but also continue lending practices that I think are hurting China’s long-term economic health.
By: Lyle J. Morris
It is impossible to understand modern China and its role in the world without dealing with the life and legacy of its supreme leader, Mao Zedong. The extent to which China was and continues to be shaped by his legacy cannot be overstated. Mao retains an almost demigod status in the consciousness of many Chinese born before his death in 1976 and has been the topic of myriad biographies from Western scholars hoping to add their unique perspective on China’s larger-than–life leader. Thus, adequately explaining this extremely complicated figure in the context of his times remains a vitally important necessity, now that China has reemerged on the world stage.
That is precisely why “Mao: The Untold Story” is such a supreme disappointment. In the interest of full disclosure, I knew going in that Jung Chang would not be friendly towards Mao. Her previous book, “Wild Swans” - which recounts the evocative and unsettling story of how three generations of women in her family fared in the political maelstrom of China during the 20th century - did not hold back its disdain towards the man. I have no problem with this; a biographer is not required to like his or her subject. It is common knowledge, for instance, that Stephen Ambrose abhorred Richard Nixon. However, a biographer owes it to his or her subject, and most of all to their readers, to present an objective account of the person’s life, as Ambrose achieved. In this regard, the authors wholeheartedly fail. They present a wooden, one-dimensional picture of an enormously complex life, and readers could be forgiven if they came away from the book believing Mao was Lucifer incarnate. It is bad history, shoddily written, poorly edited, with a story that moves along in an agonized, plodding manner.
In this book, Mao appears more as caricature than human being, and the central thesis of the authors seems to be that Mao “meaned” his way to the top, being a man without a single redeeming quality. Mao’s personal physician, Li Zhisui, wrote a tell-all book about his infamous patient, “The Private Life of Chairman Mao”, that portrays a more vivid, realistic, and interesting picture of the Chairman, warts and all. Li makes no secret of the fact that he believed Mao was a despot, but even he acknowledged Mao’s contributions to the Revolution, and what’s more, he presented Mao as a believable human being. Chang and Halliday would have us believe the Revolution succeeded in spite of Mao.
The authors cite a panoply of sources and interviews to back up their controversial claims. This includes over 300 interviews in 38 countries, with the list of interviewees running the gamut from ex-Prime Ministers to Mao’s ex-girlfriends, sons and daughters, nannies, and even laundry workers. More often than not, the authors rest their most controversial claims on anonymous interviews or unpublished documents, making it next to impossible to verify their authenticity. For example, the authors make their most controversial assertions – that the most famous battle of the Long March, at the Dadu Bridge in 1935, never took place; or that the Communists lost the battle of Tucheng; or that Mao rose to be party leader not because he was the favorite of his fellow Chinese, but because Moscow chose him – on interviews with “ex-girlfriends”, “90 year-old local cadres” and “Russian insiders” respectively. The paltry subterfuge of these anonymous citations makes Chang’s claims extremely difficult to believe, let alone subject to academically rigorous and certifiably sound substantiation. More to the point, such liberal use of seemingly unverifiable sources all but deflate any expository power.
Throughout the book the authors draw several questionable conclusions in their attempt to shatter the Mao myth. For instance, they argue that practically every CCP leader, including those in the Soviet Union, despised Mao. This does not stand to reason. First of all, in the days before Mao’s rise to the top, the CCP disciplined Mao on several occasions precisely because he often used passive aggressive tactics to avoid carrying out CCP directives from Moscow, believing them to be unsuitable for conditions in China. Second, if all Moscow desired was a bootlicking sycophant that fawned over every new directive from the Kremlin, there were several other candidates it would have chosen, including those who had actually lived in Moscow. Why would Stalin choose someone like Mao to head the CCP who had a demonstrated history of opposition to Moscow, and, if the authors are correct, was such an unpopular figure in his own party?
In their attempts to demonize their subject, the authors make the fatal error of propping up his opponents. In particular, they give kid glove treatment to Chiang Kai-shek, glossing over his own brutality and incompetence and the atrocities of the Nationalist government. For instance, in their account, the 1927 Shanghai White Terror purge of April 12th resulted in the deaths of “some’ trade union leaders” and “probably” more than 300 communists. They neglect to inform the reader that the actual number of dead in the city approached 40,000 and the criminal gangs allied with Chiang sold the wives and daughters of slain workers by the thousands into the city’s teeming brothels.
Throughout the book they continually explain away Chiang’s shortcomings, failures and disastrous generalship as due to the treachery or ineptitude of others. His coterie was comprised of moles, secret agents, or outright traitors. Using apocryphal claims, they allege that one of Chiang’s most trusted generals, Hu Zongnan, was a Moscow agent, who deliberately lost scores of key battles to the CCP. Yet he inexplicably accompanied Chiang to Taiwan in 1949 and remained there the rest of his life.
One of the author’s most unique assertion is that Chiang intentionally held back and permitted the CCP to escape to north China during the Long March, because of a secret deal he made with the Russians to guarantee the safety of his only son Chiang Ching-kuo, who was living in Russia as an exchange student and worker. Again, the authors can offer no evidence to back this up, except for the fact that Chiang failed to eliminate the Red Army on the Long March. Since he failed to do so, the authors aver, it must be because he had an ulterior motive. By this logic, one wonders what his ulterior motive was in the Civil War of 1947 to 1949. The authors employ this tactic numerous times throughout the book, claiming that what they are revealing was “secret” at the time and “remains so today” - a mighty convenient way to avoid proving their assertions.
That is perhaps the greatest tragedy of “Mao: The Untold Story”: for such a tremendous effort in scope and research, the authors make the fatal mistake of setting out on a preordained path – in this case with the singular mission of destroying the image of Mao Zedong – before even typing the first word. The result is that it renders what must have been years of painstaking work - collecting interviews, looking through archives and visiting sites – utterly useless and hampered by an unambiguous bias towards the author’s subject. And conveniently, by using unnamed sources and interviews, the authors succeed in couching their most controversial claims in an impenetrable veneer of “scholarship”, making it all but impossible for serious scholars to fact check and scrutinize. The only takeaway is a book in which the authors fail to entertain any other version of Mao that has been alluded to by even his most harshest critics - his multifaceted personality, his genuine struggles over how and in which direction to lead China, even his indisputable contribution to guerrilla warfare – to portray Mao as the evilest of tyrants worthy of an 800-page smear campaign.
Just as “Mao: The Untold Story” could be likened to emotionally-charged testimony given by a witness in a courtroom – devised to portray the defendant as the reincarnation of the devil by way of grandstanding and apocryphal accusations – Philip Short’s “Mao: A Life” could be seen as a cold, calculated account by a discerning judge, laying the facts out on the table and letting the jury decide for themselves.
To those brought up under a western-inspired education system and worldview, Mao seems like a capricious despot and a heartless monster. In Philip Short’s treatment, however, Mao comes across as a man of stark contradictions. He was an astute military strategist – leading an initially disorganized, weak Communist revolutionary army to victory over a more powerful and Western-supported Nationalist army. He was a fiendishly clever politician – wielding his power at will and playing his subordinates off each other for political gain. He was a visionary – taking China from an agrarian, backward country to a second-tier developing country with nuclear weapons, UN Security Council membership and a strategic alliance with the United States. He was also a severely flawed man with even more flawed policies – bringing death and hardship to the millions he sought to lead.
So which person was he? The diabolical despot who brought incalculable hardship upon his people, or a politically shrewd leader, uniting China and bringing hope and purpose to a country in chaos? According to Short, he was all of the above. And thankfully, Short makes it his duty to illustrate these contradictions in their entirety, giving the reader a more holistic and humanistic picture of the man.
Short’s approach is essentially chronological and the first two thirds of the book take us up to 1949 and into the Korean War. Short deals with Mao’s Confucian childhood and proceeds through the national and Hunanese political and military developments in the 1920s, weaving in the growing complexity of inter and intra-party politics and politico-military rivalries. He lays out the evolution of Mao’s ideological and moral perspective and his military baptism; leads us through the emergence and triumph of Mao’s contentious military strategy in the 30s; looks in illuminating detail at the loss of innocence in the factional bloodbath of the Futian incident; and covers the construction of dominance over the Party and the emergence of the cult of the personality in the 40s. A majority of the book is dedicated to Mao’s political maneuvering and military tactics. It is overwhelmingly an account of what Mao did and what he experienced, and its focus is Mao’s relationship with the Chinese revolution.
That said, it is a careful, erudite work which lays out the facts of Mao’s childhood and the conflicts inherent within early twentieth-century China and then charts a way through Mao’s complex involvement in the unfolding of those conflicts and the bitter, and often unforgiving, machinations of the Party itself. In particular, it is Short’s ability to draw on Stuart Schram’s enormously valuable definitive editing and translating of Mao’s writings, Tony Saich’s work on the history of the Communist Party, official and unofficial publications from within China itself (particularly the Nanliu collection), as well as his own personal contacts as a journalist that enables him to provide us with a more complete and detailed knowledge of Mao’s life.
So, where does Short take us? What are the major conclusions about Mao’s life and his contributions to the Chinese and world stage? Here the book is a little disappointing. Short provides us with an epilogue rather than a conclusion. Short devotes a relatively small section to the post-Liberation period and intertwines China’s relationship with the West - and with the USA in particular - with the internal dramas of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. After a brief survey of the short-term political consequences of Mao’s death the focus is widened to encompass China’s own difficulty in assessing Mao. Here, Short offers a rather brief attempt to balance the achievements and costs of Mao’s life and ultimately takes cover behind the point that it is still too early to place Mao in his full historical context.
On the positive side, Short sees Mao’s talents – “visionary, statesman, political and military strategist of genius, philosopher and poet” – combining with a “subtle, dogged mind, awe-inspiring charisma and fiendish cleverness” to produce remarkable achievements for China. Short endorses the first of the two achievements which Mao himself identified as significant (the victory over Chiang Kai-shek) but seeks to qualify the second (the Cultural Revolution) on the grounds that while Mao might have succeeded in smashing the old order, he failed to put a viable alternative in its place. Mao certainly did not recognize, as the “Asian Tigers” have done, that the old Confucian virtues could be harnessed in a way that made them not merely relevant to economic transformation but integral and indispensable. Moreover, the overdose of ideological fervor that Mao repeatedly injected into Chinese society actually served a counter-productive purpose and, ironically, made the desired vision of a revolutionary society more difficult to achieve. Yet, while China has been able to abandon the Maoist ideology with ease, the myth of its founder has proved more durable.
Mao was, like Hitler, Stalin and Napoleon, a canny provincial whose sentiments held sway over his intellect, and who fell badly out of touch with reality once his power became so great that his advisors were no longer able to reel in his fancies. He was also one of an odd and, it appears, specifically Asian variety of bloodstained dictator. Like Pol Pot, Mao doesn’t seem to have really meant anybody any harm. It was doctrine, stifling of dissent and a childishness of mind that grew out of a complacent over-reliance on doctrine, that made him the architect of the most fatal period of misrule that China has ever seen: Once he got an idea in his head – like the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution — he simply couldn’t be persuaded to let it go.
That extreme tenacity is what carried him, and the Communist Party into whose forefront he slowly moved, through decades of struggle against Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces, against Japan and other foreign powers and against warlords and bandits of every stripe — all of whom were contending, in ever-changing combinations, for the power left behind by the Qing dynasty, which was deposed at the turn of the century. By the time the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed, in Beijing in 1949, Mao was 56 and had been conducting a military campaign for twenty-two years. But, as becomes clear in both Short’s and Chang’s biographies, the character traits that can lead a revolutionary army to victory aren’t necessarily the ones that make for a good head of state.
While Short acknowledges that Mao’s rule “brought about the deaths of more of his own people than any other leader in history”, he goes on to separate Mao qualitatively from the two other tyrants who were his contemporaries. For Short, the “overwhelming majority of those whom Mao’s policies killed were the unintended casualties of famine and bad policy”, and that puts Mao in a different category from Hitler and Stalin. Just as there is a distinction between murder, manslaughter and death caused by negligence there are gradations of political responsibility for deaths deriving from of the intent that lay behind them. Moreover, while Stalin “cared what his subjects did and Hitler who they were, Mao cared about what they thought about”. And not only were landlords eliminated as a class in China rather than the Jews as a people in Germany, but Mao never lost his conviction that thought reform could lead to redemption and incorporation into the masses.
In the end, “Mao: A Life” is a welcome and significant addition to the literature on the Chinese revolution over the twentieth century. It is hugely rich in detail and encyclopedic in scope. It gives a vivid portrayal of Mao in his early years and the events that helped shaped his eventual rise as supreme leader of China. More importantly, its gives a human face to a man long thought in the West to be an evil tyrant. As Short adroitly narrates, Mao had reasons behind his actions, and one gets the strong sense that his overarching goal was to build China into a great power worthy of every citizen’s admiration. The means to that end, however, brought untold hardship and death upon the Chinese people, and in the end, were tragically counter-productive.
Short succeeds in synthesizing and extending our knowledge of Mao and of Mao’s central, often determining, role in that revolution, but in a calculating, analytical fashion that does not foist preconceived bias or opinion upon the reader. The book is both accessible for the general reader interested in China and sufficiently rigorous for it to find a place on academic reading lists. Any reservations about the lack of concern for Mao’s private life, about the limited treatment of the economic issues and the interpretation of the costs of Mao’s life do not undermine that achievement. And if it stops short of being the definitive biography of Mao, it is at least the most up to date and comprehensive survey of Mao’s political and military life on the market.
Considering all that’s gone on in the US-China relationship over the past year, a lot is riding on President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington in January 2011.
In preparation for his visit, I’d like to sketch out what I think are likely (not ideal) outcomes of this trip for the U.S. and China.
Essentially what Hu and Obama will be dealing with when they meet will be a balancing act between security and economic goals. As the U.S. struggles to recover from its economic downturn, China is growing at a steady 6-8% annually. This has put the U.S. in an unfamiliar position of lacking leverage on the economic front, but remaining strong and relevant on the security front.
Right now, the U.S. is doing quite well on the security side in Asia. Many countries are actively lobbying the U.S. to increase its presence in the region. This is due to a perception in many parts of Asia that China is becoming increasingly assertive in staking its claims to disputed territory in the South China Sea, as well as the provocative behavior of North Korea, which has led countries to consolidate their security ties with the U.S. In China, conversely, there are serious concerns that the U.S. is pursuing a “containment” policy toward Beijing. They cite two events – the recent US-ROK naval exercises and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement claiming a “U.S. national interest” in the peaceful resolution of the South China Sea during the ASEAN Regional Forum this July – as an effort to pit Asian countries against China and an effort by the U.S. to reassert its hegemonic presence in the region.
On the economic side, due to the dual characteristics of the U.S. economic recession and the Fed’s recently announced “quantitative easing” – in which the Fed announced plans to buy up $600 of long-term U.S. treasury bonds in an effort to stimulate the economy – which has increased criticism by many export oriented economies, like Germany and China, that this will deflate the value of the dollar and increase global trade imbalances. Although most economists estimate that the RMB is undervalued by some 20-30 percent, Chinese analysts say any sudden adjustment could create havoc with the nation’s export manufacturers, displacing Chinese workers and triggering social instability.
The lack of progress with China on currency issues has put U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in a bind. Twice this year, he’s delayed a congressional-mandated report on whether or not China manipulates its currency, the second time until President Obama’s Asia trip had concluded. Thus, the administration is in an awkward position. They want to be reasonable, but they also have to head the calls from the very vocal interest groups and business leaders in the U.S. to put more pressure on China. Yet they risk pushing China too hard to move on the currency issue at a time when Washington lacks the leverage it once had in the past.
In light of these challenges, and call me pessimistic here, but I think what you’re going to see during Hu’s visit is lip service being paid by both leaders to placate their political bases, but no major breakthroughs or deliverables on the divisive issues in the bilateral relationship. For Obama, this means articulating U.S. concerns over the revaluation of the RMB as not only a benefit to rebalancing the global economy, but a step that will put China’s domestic economy on a more solid path to sustained growth. On security issues, Obama will voice concern over North Korea’s continued provocative behavior (the Cheonan sinking, recent reports of nuclear enrichment facility, and the Yeonpyeong Island shelling) and its adherence to a peaceful resolution to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. For Hu, that means stating the importance of the U.S. respecting China’s domestic concerns for stability and of allowing the RMB to appreciate gradually, at a pace of China’s choosing. Hu will also voice his concern about U.S. monetary policy and of the U.S. not taking measures that will weaken the dollar at China’s expense. He will also state the need for the U.S. to respect China’s unique geo-strategic location as a neighbor of North Korea and its need to maintain stability in the region.
I think it’s reasonable to expect the two countries to come to broad agreements on the need for both countries to take measures to rebalance their economies – for the U.S. this means more domestic savings and less emphasis on debt-driven growth; for China the need to shift to a more domestic, consumption-driven development model and moves away from its over reliance on exports. But I don’t think you’ll see Hu make any concessions on revaluing the RMB, simply because he has given no indication in the past the China is willing to cave to U.S. pressure on the RMB issue.
I am hopeful, though, that North Korea’s recent provocative behavior might force China to join the international community in condemning the acts, which might create space for more consensus among the two countries on how to work together to deal with the North Korea situation. In fact, contrary to what many reports are saying about North Korea driving a wedge between the U.S. and China, I am of the minority opinion that the situation can create a unique opportunity for the two sides to cooperate. I think there are signs that China is beginning to view North Korea as a strategic liability prone to unpredictable bouts of violence and provocations. What this means is outwardly, China will continue to seek to manage North Korea and softly temper its behavior. Privately, however, Chinese leaders might start seeing the need to initiate reunification scenario consultations with the U.S., Japan and South Korea.
…and it’s time to get this thing back in action. More to come soon.
China’s 60th Anniversary celebration a few weeks back was a monumental spectacle by any standard. Hundreds of thousands of troops, schoolchildren and civilians meticulously rehearsed months in advance. Jets, tanks and missile-toting trucks filed through in a show of military muscle, displaying China’s transformation from a war-battered regional player into global economic superpower. Thousands watched from the stands waving little red Chinese flags while countless other millions watched from their TV sets. Chinese citizens worldwide were flushed with an overwhelming sense of national pride and honor.
Then I talked to my dad, who I think encapsulated the prevailing sentiment for non-Chinese Westerners watching the event outside China, when he said, “It reminds me of North Korea and Cold War-era Soviet Union.” Granted, my dad is prone to hyperbole. And, if he had watched China’s 50th Anniversary celebration, for example, this recent display should not have come as a surprise. But his general reaction to China’s audacious military display brings up an important point: might the PRC’s once-a-decade military extravaganza work at cross purposes with its attempt to promote a benign global image? In other words, is this show of might and power - largely orchestrated to appeal to a Chinese domestic audience - actually perpetuating outside suspicions that other countries have something to fear in China’s rise? It’s a scenario undoubtedly considered by China’s leaders. Most likely for them, however, legitimizing CCP rule and grandeur will always trump what those “outsiders” think. I wonder though, if they are fully aware of its long-term negative effect on China’s global image.
The George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations each produced strategy reports outlining their visions and overall strategy for Asia, coalescing around a catch phrase that would guide U.S. policy. In 2005, former US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick announced his idea that China become a “responsible stakeholder”, calling for Beijing to become increasingly integrated in international institutions so that they might see it as in their interest to act in concert with the international community (a euphemism for the West) on a range of issues. The Clinton administration’s concept of building a ‘‘cooperative strategic partnership’’ was an effort to redefine relations in positive terms after years of mistrust and friction. Thus in preparation for president Obama’s first trip to Asia and China, experts on both sides have been waiting to see if the Obama administration will continue with the Bush administration’s “responsible stakeholder” axiom or come up with a new phrase to describe the bilateral relationship.
They might have gotten their answer. Recently, US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, Zoellick’s successor, formulated his own China paradigm, “strategic reassurance”, in a September 24 speech at the Center for a New American Security.
“Strategic reassurance rests on a core, if tacit, bargain. Just as we and our allies must make clear that we are prepared to welcome China’s ‘arrival’… as a prosperous and successful power, China must reassure the rest of the world that its development and growing global role will not come at the expense of security and well-being of others. Bolstering that bargain must be a priority in the U.S.-China relationship. And strategic reassurance must find ways to highlight and reinforce the areas of common interest, while addressing the sources of mistrust directly, whether they be political, military or economic.”
Since that day, it has been unclear whether the term “strategic reassurance” represents a new formalized framing of relations on the part of the Obama Administration or simply Steinberg’s own construction. Many experts had previously pointed to the April 1 Obama-Hu agreement to work together to build a “positive, cooperative, and comprehensive relationship’’ as being the new, mutually agreed upon catch phrase.
Either way, this appears a wise choice and a welcome departure from the previous two slogans. The “responsible stakeholder” idea, while now understood and generally supported by both sides, was initially contentious since many Chinese saw it as too judgmental - there was disagreement over who got to decide what behavior was ‘responsible’ and what ’stake’ China actually had in the international system. Similarly, the earlier pledge by the Clinton administration of a “cooperative strategic partnership’’ made some US allies nervous out of concern that this proposed arrangement would somehow supersede Washington’s other alliance relationships. The phrase came to be symbolic of the Clinton Administration’s “naivete” in dealing with Beijing, much as conservative critics in the mid-70s had associated “detente” with the alleged naivete of US policy toward Moscow. This new phase seems to split the difference and keeps both sides on equal footing.
The good news is that both sides seem committed to trust-building and enhanced cooperation. The decision to establish a US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue with Secretary of State Clinton and Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo chairing the ‘Strategic Track’ and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan chairing the ‘Economic Track’ is a positive development in helping the two sides flesh out important bilateral issues. What a difference the word ‘and’ makes. During the Bush administration there was a Strategic Economic Dialogue but the focus was almost exclusively on ‘economic’. Now the dialogue can truly become strategic and sensitive security issues have and will be put on the table and seriously discussed.
A realistic and pragmatic policy should recognize and accept China’s growing political and cultural influence in the Asia-Pacific, focus American strategy away from visions of military conflict and toward the arenas of economic, political and cultural cooperation and competition, and prioritize areas of policy concern, recognizing that human rights, military modernization, energy competition and environmental issues all require ‘‘different tools and different levels of effort and emphasis’’. The opportunity – and the need – for cooperation in these non-traditional security areas has never been greater. In a speech soon after becoming Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton made it clear that the Obama administration rejects the view promulgated by some pundits and former Bush administration officials that a rising China is automatically or inherently an adversary. ‘‘To the contrary,’’ Secretary Clinton has argued, ‘‘the US and China can benefit from and contribute to each others success.’’
In short, the engagement policy followed by every US president since Richard Nixon is likely to continue under the Obama administration. Whether or not Steinberg’s speech represents a comprehensive articulation of the Obama administration’s China policy, however, remains to be seen.
President Obama’s recent trip to China was harshly criticized by the Western media as having been a “failure”. Among the criticisms: he was too deferential; he didn’t speak out enough on human rights; he failed to press Beijing firmly on revaluing its currency; he achieved no concrete results on Iran or North Korea….and the list goes on.
Quite the opposite, I would argue the trip was a success on many levels. The major goal of the trip was to make the case for multilateral cooperation regarding the pressing challenges of the global economy, climate change, nuclear proliferation, Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan-Pakistan. America cannot solve these problems alone and it cannot seek China’s help while ignoring their interests or giving disproportionate emphasis to human rights. Obama understands this and made significant progress in getting China on board with many of these U.S.- led efforts.
It is not useful to assess Obama’s trip according to goals he didn’t set for himself. Contrary to popular opinion (and the press), Obama did not expect China to agree to any deliverables upon completion of his visit there, like revaluing its currency, making concessions on Tibet or human rights, or agreeing to significant deviations in regards to its North Korea or Iran policies. Significant differences remain between the two countries on these issues and it is unrealistic to expect large shifts in Chinese policy with one presidential visit. However, recent reports about China’s decision to back a strongly worded rebuke of Iran’s nuclear program and pledge to significantly curtail emissions point to the fact that Obama may have gotten small but substantive pledges from the Chinese. Unfortunately, as is often the case when the media follows presidential trips abroad, perceptions trump reality, and in the 24-hour news cycle, initial perceptions of events, however right or wrong, get plastered on the front pages of newspapers nationwide. Perceptions are often wrong, and I would argue that any outcome from the trip could take weeks, months, even years to bear fruit.
The Atlantic’s James Fallows has been leading the charge against the negatives perceptions of Obama’s trip. I found two posts on the reaction from an expat and an Obama administration official to Obama’s Shanghai Town Hall Meeting particularly interesting. Two sections I’d like to highlight: one from a foreigner living and working in China for over two decades:
“…But the comment from President Obama that I think will have the most impact inside the firewall was not the one about US principles that you quoted in your followups. It was this one:
‘Now, I should tell you, I should be honest, as President of the United States, there are times where I wish information didn’t flow so freely because then I wouldn’t have to listen to people criticizing me all the time. I think people naturally are — when they’re in positions of power sometimes thinks, oh, how could that person say that about me, or that’s irresponsible, or — but the truth is that because in the United States information is free, and I have a lot of critics in the United States who can say all kinds of things about me, I actually think that that makes our democracy stronger and it makes me a better leader because it forces me to hear opinions that I don’t want to hear. It forces me to examine what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis to see, am I really doing the very best that I could be doing for the people of the United States.’
“Wow! As a resident of China for two decades and a Mandarin-speaking China-watcher for three decades, I can say without any doubt that those words will resonate far more deeply — and potentially more “subversively” or “destabilizingly” — than any overt thumb-in-the-eye hectoring that any foreigner or foreign leader might muster, in public or private. Those words are ***precisely*** the kind that Zhongnanhai [Chinese term equivalent to "the Kremlin"] fears the most, and rightly so.”
And this one from an Obama administration official in charge of coordinating the trip about what the Administration hoped for from the trip:
“In thinking about the trip, the things we were trying to accomplish were all basically long term things. We were not looking for ‘deliverables’ or one-day stories. You’ve now got eight or nine countries among the G20 that are Asia-Pacific countries. The historic shift of power and influence from West to East is reflected in that number.
“Obama is very focused on global issues, things like climate change, financial imbalances, non proliferation, energy issues. We saw all the countries on this trip as players on those global issues. Of course China is important in particular, but also Korea and Japan and the ASEAN countries. So we saw this as a way of developing relationships that would be helpful to us as we tackled these issues coming down the road.
“We’ve got Copenhagen [climate talk] coming up in mid-December. We have Iran heading increasingly likely toward Plan B rather than Plan A, pressure rather than inducements. North Korea. And the Copenhagen session is very far from a done deal. The countries we dealt with are all key players here. And on the economic side, you’ve got the whole issue of rebalancing the global agenda. None of those is something where you come out of a meeting and say Eureka. They’re all part of a long process and a long game.
“The other thing we had in mind, which has to do with the whole “rising China” phenomenon: we wanted to solidify the relationship with China. To show them that we’re not going to have a fluctuating policy. That we know what we’re doing, and understand that we are dealing from a position of strength. And at the same time, to all our traditional allies [Japan, Korea, etc], we wanted to reinforce their sense of comfort that our relationship with China won’t be at their expense.”
About the Town Hall meeting in Shanghai: Why was it “censored” rather than streamed to anyone who wanted to see it in China?
“We negotiated endlessly against a very difficult Chinese government on the issue. Their intransigence tells me several things. It was the day before the meeting with Hu Jintao, and there were uneasy about what might be said in a live format. ["Surprise" = "unacceptable risk" in many official Chinese dealings.] This was also a townhall format of a type they had never had before. [What about Bill Clinton's? That was a roundtable plus a speech, not a town hall.] We wanted to have 1000 or 1500 people. They said No. Security problems, and so on. So, we got to 500. We insisted on live streaming. Endless fights on that. Then live TV. Endless fights. And questions from the internet. Huge fights over who would pose them and who would screen. There wasn’t a single aspect of the meeting that wasn’t hard fought.
“It was tortured enough that we thought about pulling the plug. At the end of the day we decided to go through. The point is that on the Chinese side, this showed more than the usual anxiety. I think there was a genuine anxiety about the possible… force of Barack Obama. I would say a word short of “subversive” or “destabilizing.” But something profoundly disturbing to their system of government and control. The anxiety was a tribute to the kind of inspirational force he has.
“What they actually did, was to put the live streaming part on Xinhua.net. For the opening portion, we studied very carefully Ronald Reagan’s speech at Fudan in 1984. It began almost identically: Here is who we are, and these are our values. But Reagan’s ended with a poem from Zhou Enlai. Can you Imagine what would have happened if Barack Obama had ended up with a poem by Zhou Enlai?
“We know there were tens of millions of hits on Xinhua.net. And more than two or three tens of millions. Some people complained that this was carried ‘only’ on Shanghai TV, but that reaches reaches 100 million households. Of the top 10 Chinese web sites, nine carried news and commentary. Thousands of user generated messages and blog posts. Tens of millions people in the first instance saw it, and by the time it’s over the number is going to be staggering. Whenever we had a discussion about, Should we pull the plug, we thought, if there is an opportunity to talk to tens of millions of people, that is an opportunity we should take. People can draw their conclusions about China and America from the event.”
And this from Obama’s National Security Advisor for Asia and Chief China advisor, Jeffrey Bader, about Obama’s comments to Hu Jintao on human rights, which you can find in it entirety here:
“I just want to say a word about human rights. I’ve been involved in the China relationship for over 30 years, and I’ve been on previous presidential visits, visits by secretaries of state to China. This was as direct a discussion on human rights as I’ve seen by any high-level visitor with the Chinese. And this was multifaceted. You all saw the Shanghai event yesterday in which the President spoke at some length in his introductory remarks about American values, about rule of law, freedom of expression, access to information, the rights of minorities — called them universal rights; and then in the question-and-answer session talked again at some length about the importance of an uncensored Internet and how people benefit, countries benefit, and leaders benefit from the openness of the Internet. I have never heard that kind of a discussion publicly in China before…
…they discussed Tibet. The President — you saw in the joint press conference, the President referred — the joint press conference, the President referred explicitly to the importance of protection of freedom of religion and the rights of ethnic minorities, and then immediately discussed the importance of a resumption of a dialogue between the Dalai Lama and representatives — the Dalai Lama’s representatives and the Chinese government. That was a deliberate and a clear statement of the priority the President places on this, and it was discussed privately, as well — the President making clear his respect for the Dalai Lama as a cultural and religious leader, and his intention to meet with the Dalai Lama at an appropriate time.”