After President Obama's November 2009 trip to Asia was widely panned by the media and commentators, the White House spin machine kicked into high gear in a vain attempt to make it seem like less of a disaster than it clearly had been. One of their main lines of attack was tocastigate the "rush to judgment" and horse-race mentality among those calling the trip -- particularly the China portion -- a failure. Well, in the intervening weeks, so many things have gone so wrong between the US and China that 2010 has been widely predicted as the year that the wheels really come off this always awkward relationship. Putting aside Beijing's "unimportant" human rights provocations of recent weeks (such as the 11-year prison sentence for leading dissident Liu Xiaobo and the announcement of dramatic new restrictions on the internet in China), let's do the Administration the small favor of judging them by progress on two "important" issues that they have asked their quiet diplomacy with Beijing be judged upon: the Copenhagen climate talks and Iran. As the late, lamented sportscaster extraordinaire George Michael would say: "Let's go to the videotape."
First to Copenhagen, where the Chinese negotiating team repeatedly and publicly humiliated the US -- including a very public snub of President Obama himself -- and forced Obama to agree to a deal that fell far shorts of his hopes, dreams and expectations. Notwithstanding the breathlessaccounts of President Obama bursting into negotiating sessions like some sort of diplomatic Rambo, most commentators on all sides agreed that the deal he negotiated is little more than another regurgitation of commitments already made at the G20, the 2007 Bali climate ministerial and other climate confabs -- and an incomplete one even by that standard. Many who were hoping for a breakthrough at Copenhagen have blamed the Chinese regime's tough negotiating position for the failure of the talks (while those who were hoping for failure at Copenhagen are likewise grateful to Beijing's muscular approach to self-interest); but this criticism of the Chinese contains an implicit rebuke of the Obama Administration's strategy for the talks, which relied heavily on a clearly misguided belief that the Chinese were more willing to deal than they turned out to be. Even in the end, when it was clear Beijing was intent on obstructing a "meaningful" outcome in Copenhagen, Obama was negotiating one-on-one with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao as if nobody else there mattered. Having set himself on this course and stuck with it despite mounting evidence it was a poor one, it seems Obama left himself no choice but to be complicit in his own failure.
So next to Tehran, where the brutal mullahs are facing an existential threat to their continued rule at home but remain secure in the knowledge that their fellow authoritarians in Beijing have their back at the UN and in the P-5+1 (the key forum for diplomatic maneuvering over Iran's nuclear ambitions). As President Obama's end-of-year deadline for Iranian cooperation came and went with nothing but further provocations from the Ahmadinejad/Khamenei dictatorship,Beijing has reiterated its long-standing opposition to additional sanctions on Iran. That they so clearly articulated these sentiments upon the occasion of taking over the presidency of the UN Security Council this week must be additional mud in the eye of the Obama White House. (Recall the early November "special mission" to Beijing by the NSC's Jeffrey Bader and Dennis Ross to brief the Chinese on how Israel viewed Iran as an "existential threat", and efforts to get Beijing to buy more oil from the Saudis rather than the Iranians.) In fact, the PRC Ambassador to the UN made it clear that they did not foresee Iran even being on the agenda of the Security Council while his country held the presidency this month. If you listen tothe State Department's muddled attempts at spin , you would think this whole situation has come as a complete surprise to them. In fact, the rotation of the UN Security Council presidency is not sprung upon member states like winners of a bingo contest, but rather is known far in advance. So surely the Obama Administration, in setting their year-end deadline on Iran, had to know that they would be running right into the teeth of the Chinese presidency of the Security Council in January 2010. Is this situation attributable to incompetence or insincerity?
Hard to know.
On the other hand, one of my China-watching colleagues has pointed out that there is one area where the Administration has enjoyed some success in the US-China relationship of late: the effort to finance the US pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. As reported bythe New York Times, over the past 11 months, Secretary of State Clinton has personally led an effort to raise over $60 million dollars from US multinational corporations to fund a snazzy Expo pavilion showcasing the wonders of American business and society. One has to wonder, given the brutal economic landscape of the past year and a big push by the Bush Administration throughout 2008 to find funding for the pavilion, what prompted the likes of PepsiCo, Chevron and General Electric to suddenly make multi-billion dollar contributions? According to Secretary Clinton, after initial appeals to patriotism failed,"All of a sudden the companies understood it would be good for them.” Were they somehow unaware of China's market potential until she and her colleagues at the State Department explained it to them? Somehow I doubt it.
So, let's recap. In two key areas of US-China relations the White House has labeled its highest priorities and exerted the most direct involvement and ownership -- climate change and Iran -- they are 0 for 2. On another important issue -- "rebalancing" of the US-China economic relationship -- the US consumer by necessity has done more to address that problem than either government, while the Chinese regime continues aggressively moving in the wrong direction: defending their refusal to revalue their currency, and expanding policies that maintain export-dependence and discourage increased domestic household consumption. The Obama Administration's China policy looks even worse if you factor in the "less important" issues: damaged or stagnant US relations with key powers Japan and India; a series of provocative actions on trade that could set off a wider trade war just as US manufacturing is stabilizing; and the Chinese regime's worsening crackdown on human rights. But Secretary Clinton: well, she's 1 for 1 on the Shanghai Expo. So they've got that going for them.
Despite clear evidence that their soft touch has failed to melt the hearts of China's leadership, my bet is that the Obama Administration will continue to pursue some version of the current strategy of catering to Beijing's sensitivities to the maximum extent. There may bean appearance of greater disruption on the surface -- especially as the Taiwan arms package moves forward and if the long-anticipated meeting between President Obama and the Dalai Lama actually takes place -- but this will be more than compensated for by continued efforts behind the scenes to reassure and appease any hurt feelings these events may cause. Unfortunately, this appeasement is likely to take the form of further concessions on really important things such as reducing long-term regional security commitments and continuing to privilege relations with China over relations with other partners such as India and Japan. There are already signs that the Obama Administration is intent on sticking with appeasement, as evidenced in the muted response to Chinese behavior on climate, Iran and Liu Xiaobo's imprisonment, contrasted with the hard-ball tactics employed against the Japanese government. If so, the net result will be the same: the Chinese regime will remain committed to the pursuit of its own interests and to the extent that these do not overlap with those of the US, very little substantive cooperation will be forthcoming; and the Obama Administration will continue to diminish American prestige and regional security in Asia, while undermining human rights in China in the process, and creating openings that China's leaders will continue to exploit to their own advantage. If this vicious policy cycle continues, China's authoritarian leaders just can't lose.
Next Page