Beijing Opera Heads to Washington
Image Credit: Wikicommons / Shizhao

Beijing Opera Heads to Washington

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The Barack Obama administration’s approach to China is entirely consistent with establishment foreign policy thinking over the last 40 years, with a few brief exceptions, through Republican and Democrat administrations.

One result is a Chinese government that’s no longer simply a menace to its neighbours, but now has the economic influence and military capabilities to extend coercion around the globe. As Beijing’s military and global ambitions grow, and democracy continues to be denied to the Chinese people, the tab from an unwise ‘bet’ on China is becoming clearer.

Forty years ago, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger placed a bet on China’s future direction and the United States’ ability to shape it. In essence, the bet was that with increased deference to Chinese leaders and expansive bilateral engagement, over time the differences in our national interests would narrow and opportunities for strategic cooperation would expand.

President Obama and his administration will be singing from the same sheet music next week, as Chinese President Hu Jintao is welcomed to Washington for a state visit. As the music was composed in Beijing 40 years ago, it’s surprising how dutifully the US foreign policy establishment continues to sing along.

As part of this opera, we are to suspend disbelief with regard to certain realities and normal practices. China must be treated as an exception, not subject to the demands and responsibilities routinely pressed by us on other major powers. Emphasis should be on symbolism and accommodation before actions and results. Our leaders are advised to shy away from speaking directly, much less publicly, about Chinese shortcomings — such as enabling new nuclear rogues, crushing domestic dissent, coercing neighbours, and distorting global markets.

The theory is that if we’re quiet about our concerns, the Chinese will be more likely to take positive action, as we will have allowed them to save face. The problem is that we’ve been helping China save face for decades and lost track of what we should reasonably expect in return.

Enter Defence Secretary Robert Gates. To help set the tone for next week’s summit, Secretary Gates visited China this week offering nuclear, missile, and space briefings typically only shared with allies. As an added sweetener, he held out the prospect that with improved China-Taiwan relations over time, the United States might reconsider the need for arms sales to Taiwan.

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