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Obama Administration Undermines U.S. Standing with China

Apologizing for U.S. human rights abuses and other embarrassing moments.

8:20 AM, May 18, 2010 • By KELLEY CURRIE
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China’s number one core interest is to maintain its fundamental system and state security; next is state sovereignty and territorial integrity; and third is the continued stable development of the economy and society.

Now, China's "fundamental system" is that of an authoritarian dictatorship under the absolute control of the Chinese Communist Party.  The references to "state sovereignty and territorial integrity" are code for Chinese control and/or right to exercise dominion over Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang.  I'm willing to give Deputy Secretary Steinberg the benefit of the doubt that he does not mean to say that the U.S. shares Beijing's interests in preserving China's authoritarian system or its views on the use of force against Taiwan.  But Steinberg has been around long enough to know that when he and other officials talk about "common core interests" or "respect for each other's core interests" (as was expressed in the November 2009 U.S.-China joint statement), the Chinese side imports their own understanding -- about which they have been quite clear -- into this phrase.  Nobody should be surprised when the Chinese then become enraged by actions the U.S. side considers routine (if irritating), but which the Chinese see as the U.S. breaking promises to respect China's "core interests." 

This rhetorical mismatch is one of the main causes of instability in the U.S.-China relationship, and one of the most easily avoidable if U.S. officials would stop using Chinese jargon when talking about American policies and perspectives.  Maybe at the U.S.-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue next week in Beijing, the two sides should take a break from talking about common interests that don't really exist, and start working on a common vocabulary that isn't so loaded.

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