Late last week, the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and most other major media outlets ran stories that portrayed U.S.-China relations as being on the mend after the recent rough patch. As evidence of the skillful personal diplomacy of President Obama, several news stories included breathless reports that Obama was yakking it up on the phone with his BFF Chinese President Hu Jintao for so long that Air Force One was idling on the runway for 10-15 minutes because neither one wanted to be the first to hang up the phone. (So much for working together to reduce carbon emissions.) These stories followed on and referenced earlier reports about some recent "breakthroughs" such as (1) Hu is now attending Mr. Obama's April 12-13 "nuclear security" summit after several weeks of playing hard-to-get (but he's going to Iran's nuclear summit, too); (2) China was no longer blocking a UN Security Council sanctions resolution on Iran (maybe); and (3) the Chinese are apparently even making noises about currency revaluation (and, totally unrelated I am sure, Treasury is now "delaying" its April 15 finding on whether China is manipulating said currency).
When the fanciful talk about Chinese cooperation is stripped away, the Obama administration's China policy looks less like a skillful exercise in diplomacy and more like a continued misguided attempt at forming a "G2," followed by a series of lurches from one tactic to another to make the president simultaneously look a little tougher at home but still friendly in Beijing. And all this happy talk and discursive policy obscures the core issue that was brought into high relief by the recent unpleasantness: there remains a very serious mismatch between the American and Chinese political systems that no amount of "strategic reassurance" can fix. When even long-time members of the China Pep Squad like Chas Freeman are talking about this as a serious long-term problem, you know there is something going on. As with so many other issues, the Obama administration's passive-aggressive China policy -- with its heavy reliance on bad deals to avoid uncomfortable decisions and too-clever talking points to gloss over structural differences -- is only delaying the inevitable day of reckoning.