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.
I have long believed that China would be better served all around if they stopped over-reacting to "provocations" on Taiwan and Tibet, and that the U.S. can make this issues less "provocative" by being up front about them and our general antipathy toward dictatorship in our dealings with China, rather than trying to pretend that we can be BFFs with the new authoritarian superpower on the block just because they are so big and powerful. As I have previously noted, China and the US have completely different understandings of what constitutes each others' "core interests" and what it means to "agree" to "respect" them, and that as long as this persists, these kinds of eruptions are unavoidable. (Even the Chinese themselves seem to get this more than China's boosters in the US foreign policy community.) Unfortunately for the CCP, and those in the U.S. foreign policy community who hold tight to the dream of an ever deeper and lovelier relationship with Beijing's authoritarians, the gap cannot be bridged without the US making a decision to accept China as an authoritarian state. The events of past year should be enough to make clear that Jim Steinberg's "strategic reassurance" approach of trying to make China more comfortable by "removing obstacles" to cooperation -- which seemed to be primarily American values and U.S. interests in Asia -- doesn't work. In fact, it ran smack dab into the teeth of a couple stubborn truths: 1) the fact that most Americans are uncomfortable with the idea that we are going to manage our own decline so that an authoritarian China can take our place as the indispensable nation; and 2) the fact that China is never going to be comfortable with the US military presence in and generally benign hegemonic role as security and economic guarantor of Asia (including US policy toward Taiwan), US support for human rights in China, US interest in the situation in Tibet, and a whole host of other issues that cannot just be abandoned because President Obama acknowledged in a joint statement that the Chinese regime doesn't like them.
Unfortunately for President Obama, his China policy team's response to the failure of strategic reassurance seems to be doubling down on the appeasement aspects of it. In order to fully appreciate this, one must read the China Daily piece together with the disturbing Washington Post report about the administration's attempts to exempt China from Iran sanctions legislation, the reports on downgrading of China as an intelligence collection priority, and various other signals this administration has been trying to send to Beijing to deflect attention away from the Dalai Lama meeting and the Taiwan arms package and show their sincerity in wanting a "positive, constructive and comprehensive relationship."
This charm offensive/apology tour will not work with the Chinese -- the China Daily piece should be read as a clear signal to that effect -- and it is not going to fly with American people or our actual allies (see the comments from one of them in the Washington Post article). If the Obama administration wants to stop having these problems with its China policy, they need to stop making promises they can't keep, stop apologizing for the character of American democracy, and stop acting like they need to inoculate US policy toward China against infection by American values.