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).
Given the tenor of U.S.-China relations for the past few months, particularly the recent surge of excitable rhetoric from all sides of the political spectrum on the currency issue, this sudden flurry of apparent semi-cooperation appeared to have caught some observers by surprise. It shouldn't have. Virtually unnoticed by the mainstream press was a briefing for foreign press earlier last week in which the State Department's China policy commissar Deputy Secretary Jim Steinberg painted an extremely rosy picture of the state of U.S.-China relations. Steinberg largely (and probably unwisely) credited his recent China trip with NSC Senior Director for Asia Jeff Bader as having smoothed Beijing's ruffled feathers over the Taiwan arms package and the meeting with the Dalai Lama, and convinced the Chinese a nuclear Iran was bad(!). Although he was coy when asked about quid pro quos on Iran, currency, and the nuke summit, it was clear enough that "strategic reassurance" remained the order of the day and, despite the appearance of drama in the U.S.-China relationship, the Obama team was focused on maintaining good and friendly relations with Beijing. Now, one could look at the events of the past few months and conclude that recent Chinese efforts to seem less obstreperous might be the result of the White House getting tougher (or appearing to) with the Chinese and/or the Chinese recognition that they overreached with their recent aggressiveness. This would seem to be a politically sensible message for the White House on an issue that is increasingly a domestic political concern. But the administration is instead bending over backwards to send the opposite, somewhat implausible, message that Obama's (and/or Steinberg's) dogged personal efforts to maintain friendly relations with Beijing despite all this drama have led to China's sudden "helpfulness" in reaching a lame quid pro quo whereby the U.S. doesn't name China a currency manipulator in exchange for Hu Jintao's RSVP to the no-nukes pep rally and some underwhelming sanctions on Iran (that China will either be exempt from or ignore). In short, China once again succeeds in getting rewarded for bad behavior. Its certainly an interesting choice of spin.
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.