Last week, it was reported that Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, the State Department's point man on China, and his National Security Council counterpart Jeffrey Bader headed to China on a low profile mission to repair frayed ties. Steinberg had planned to go to China in February, but the Chinese cancelled his trip as part of the blowback over proposed arms sales to Taiwan and President Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama.
While the White House and State Department have said little about the trip, the Chinese state-controlled media and Chinese foreign ministry have been veritable fonts of information. The Chinese MFA was asked about the trip at its daily press conference, and made the following bellicose comments about the visit:
[I]n the past two months, on the Taiwan and Tibet-related issues, the US violated the principles enshrined in the three joint communiqués and China-US Joint Statement, seriously disrupted the development of China-US relations and caused difficulties for the bilateral cooperation in major fields. It is but natural that China has made necessary response. It is imperative for the US to take the position of the Chinese side seriously, respect the core interests and major concerns of China, and display sincerity and take concrete actions so as to push China-US relations back to the track of healthy and stable development.
Hmmm...looks like Bader and Steinberg did not quite manage to deliver the goods. But it does appear that they made a good faith effort to kiss and make up with the Chinese by throwing the US Congress under the bus, if China Daily is to be believed (a specious proposition, I'll grant you). In a very interesting article, China Daily reported that Bader & Steinberg blamed the US "violations" on pressure from Capitol Hill. The money quote from "a source close to the US Embassy in Beijing" (whose information, incidentally, the actual US Embassy refused to confirm):
"During the visit, the two diplomats mainly explained to the Chinese officials in charge of foreign affairs why the Obama administration provoked China (by deciding to sell weapons to Taiwan and meeting the Dalai Lama)," the source said after the two diplomats wrapped up their unusually low-key visit and left for Japan.
"The main argument (the two diplomats offered) was that the Obama administration did so due to significant political pressure from the US Congress," said the source, declining to be named.
Now, it is not uncommon for officials from the executive branch of the United States government to use Congress as a tool to deflect Beijing's irritation and preserve their "good and friendly relations" with their Chinese interlocutors by blaming Congress for some irrational aspect of US policy -- like monitoring human rights in China or asking the Chinese to help stop North Korean and Iranian proliferation -- that they are being forced (damn democracy!) to implement against their own will and good judgment. If, for example - purely hypothetical speculation, Bader & Steinberg told the Chinese that President Obama met with the Dalai Lama because Speaker Pelosi was insisting on it, they would not be the first or the last US diplomats to hide behind her (very fashionable) skirt.
The difference in this case is that the Chinese are publicly calling the administration on this attempt at blame-shifting - something I don't remember ever having seen them do before. There are any number of possible explanations for this, but this is mine: China's new-found capacities and improved direct relationships on Capitol Hill, through which they are better able to make their own judgments about "what Congress wants" (which they have likely discovered to be a pure fiction), coupled with China's "new" confidence/arrogance/diffidence regarding the opinion of said legislative body and the populace it represents.