The excellent obituaries for Alexander Haig showed his many facets—four-star general, crisis manager at the White House, national security deputy to Henry Kissinger, commander of NATO, charming though prickly secretary of state—but left out his revealing collision with Beijing’s “bite your friend” syndrome in 1981-82. This syndrome, which predated Haig, lives on to threaten President Obama.

Beijing often tries to instill in any “friend of China” a feeling of obligation to do even more for the People’s Republic. Show yourself susceptible to the Middle Kingdom, and smiles lead to demands. Call it bite-your-friend. Someone known to be wary of China, by contrast, does better, as Beijing must snap to reality for the encounter.

Serving as President Carter’s national security adviser in the late 1970s, Zbigniew Brzezinski tilted dramatically toward China to draw it into an anti-Soviet phalanx. Responding, the Chinese asked more and more of Carter—and mostly got it.

As President Reagan’s secretary of state, Haig in 1981 touted China’s global strategic importance and offered to suspend Washington’s prohibition on arms sales to the PRC. China quickly demanded Hawk missiles, Mark 48 anti-submarine torpedoes, and armored personnel carriers. Haig, excited about his Oriental initiative, hoped to swap arms to Beijing for China’s acceptance of Washington’s sale of the F-X fighter plane to Taiwan, to which Reagan was committed. Haig miscalculated.

China not only angrily objected to the F-X for Taiwan, but demanded of Haig a firm date for ending all arms sales to Taiwan. Haig faced two problems. Reagan decided his secretary of state had gone too far toward accommodating Beijing. And the Chinese, noting Haig’s gesture, pushed for the extra mile.

Haig persisted. When John Holdridge, assistant secretary for East Asia, told Haig it would be difficult to get the Pentagon to agree to sell missiles and armored personnel carriers to Beijing, Haig shouted at him: “Get it through your thick head. We’re going to sell arms to China in September [1981], so we can sell arms to Taiwan in January!” Haig soon resigned, largely over this mess—and China lost a friend.

In June 1982, Haig was replaced by George Shultz, who had a less expansive view of China’s capacity to balance Moscow than Haig (or Kissinger) and felt China needed the United States more than the United States needed China. Shultz spoke of China’s important “regional role” but reserved the term “strategic” for Washington’s relationship with Japan.

It must have stunned Haig that Reagan and Shultz sharply improved relations with China. Wrote James Mann in his 1999 book About Face, “Surprisingly, between 1983 and 1988, the Reagan administration forged a closer, more extensive working relationship with China’s Communist regime than the two governments had before or have had since.”

Bite-your-friend can be found also in Beijing’s dealings with Australia, among other countries. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, fluent in Chinese and formerly an Australian diplomat resident in Beijing, was easy prey. When elected in 2007, Rudd enjoyed universal billing as a guaranteed wizard in handling China.

But, in fact, Australia’s relations with the PRC, though extensive, have been rocky under Rudd. In 2009, Beijing assailed Canberra for allowing Rebiya Kadeer, a Muslim leader of China’s Uighurs, into Australia, sabotaged the Melbourne Film Festival for showing a film about her, and tried to stop the National Press Club from having her speak. Photos of dead kangaroos appeared on the film festival’s website. Worse, China reacted angrily when the Beijing firm Chinalco was unable to buy a large chunk of the Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto. Soon four Rio employees, one an Australian citizen, found themselves in Chinese prisons.

China demanded that Australia “immediately correct its wrong-doings.” The Beijing mouthpiece China Daily said Australia, by giving Kadeer a visa, was “siding with a terrorist.” Actually, Rudd’s China policy has been balanced, but Beijing evidently expected better from a friend.

Rudd’s predecessor proved the syndrome by negative example. John Howard was wary of China when he became prime minister in 1996. His strong criticism of Chinese naval threats in the Taiwan Strait that year brought a chill between Canberra and Beijing. Soon, however, Howard and China began a decade of smooth cooperation, with excellent economic and cultural results, despite Howard’s closeness to Washington and his meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2007.

Individuals, too, can find China asks more of a friend than of a skeptic. Back in the early 1970s, as the author of 800,000,000: The Real China, I was assumed by Beijing to be a friend. Expectations grew that I would agree with all of China’s positions. This did not occur. When Deng Xiaoping was purged in April 1976 and I said the charges against him were ridiculous, a senior Chinese diplomat in Washington retorted, “If you don’t understand Deng is a counterrevolutionary, you don’t understand anything about China!” Yet this stain did not reduce my access to China (and the Chinese diplomat, after Mao’s death, became Deng’s ambassador to the United Kingdom). Today, I agree with Beijing on some issues and sharply disagree on others. It makes for a more stable relationship than being a friend.

Obama may be in danger of experiencing bite-your-friend. He announced early in his presidency a shriveled notion of American exceptionalism (“I believe in American exceptionalism just as I suspect  … Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism”). Fine for a law school seminar, but self-effacing from the sole superpower. Obama also promulgated the idea that if big powers behave well, rogue states will be inspired to behave well too. This view—decidedly not Beijing’s—looks like a dove’s flight into the dark. To say the least, Sudan, Iran, Burma, and North Korea have been slow to get Obama’s message.

Still genial on his visit to China in November, Obama met no dissidents, did not insist on taking questions at the Obama-Hu press conference, allowed the joint U.S.-China statement to pontificate about India and South Asia, and did not attend church. Asking little from Hu Jintao, he apparently got nothing. The next month in Copenhagen, Obama drank as he had brewed in Beijing. Premier Wen Jiabao, a man normally as polite as Obama, was tough with him, some say rude to him. The media didn’t even notice that Hu Jintao, who is Obama’s counterpart, did not turn up in Denmark, but sent Wen, his number two.

Since then we’ve had the Google shock and Secretary Clinton’s clumsy effort to define Internet freedom, American businessmen facing new barriers in China, a war of words over U.S arms sales to Taiwan, and zero results from any pressure from Obama on Beijing over egregious human rights violations.

With China, stating where you stand is more productive than trying to please. Long ago, a British diplomatic specialist on Asia, Ernest Satow, told young recruits going to East Asia for the first time: “Do not waste your time worrying about what is in the Asian mind. The main thing is to be clear what is in your own mind.” In this respect Nixon and Kissinger and Haig, devising the U.S. opening to China in 1971-72, were correct (and ahead of Congress, the Democratic party, and the media). They knew what they sought.

Obama seems content to preside at the table of world politics, listen to all, and pluck harmony (he hopes) from a cacophony of voices. China, though authoritarian, is realist, distant from Obama’s idealism. Whether Obama is right or wrong in his noble aims, the philosophic gap exists. The Chinese party-state has not lost its talent for probing a soft underbelly to its own advantage.

Ross Terrill, associate in research at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, is the author of The New Chinese Empire and several books published in Chinese in the PRC.

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