Beijing Opera Heads to Washington
Image Credit: Wikicommons / Shizhao

Beijing Opera Heads to Washington


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.

John Chan
January 20, 2011 at 07:29

The fundamental agreement established between Mao(China) and Nixon(the West) 40 years ago rested on a three legged stool as following:
4. It is better for both countries to work together instead of viewing each other as certain enemy.
5. China’s prosperity needs not to be at the direct expense of the US and the rest of the world.
6. Nonetheless there will be serious disagreements between the countries in terms of international and domestic issues.

The records in the past 40 years proved that the agreement has not been broken by China. It is the US has been re-interpreting the agreement unilaterally to suite its own needs. The misleading information pumping out from the think tanks, academics and media in the US and its allies has further weaken the creditability of the West’s willingness to uphold that agreement established 40 years ago. This article is one of the examples of re-interpreting the agreement unilaterally by the US to suite its own needs. Maybe the West should look in the mirror first before blaming China for all the ills.

January 19, 2011 at 09:58

Our country owe big debt to Japan and China. What can we do to help ourself in a realistic way? Now I can imagine why our President bowed really deep in front of Japanese King when he visited Japan, and even let that photo circled around the world. If author of this article come up with a better solution, this whole country will thank you.

January 18, 2011 at 12:59

For the last 5 years, it has been the US asking China to do … many things, and China basically saying no because it wasn’t in their interest. The US thereafter (and predictably) gets upset. China, on the other hand, asked for nothing.

My point being, the author is being disingenuous in presenting this from a “China is not giving the US anything it asks for” perspective.

To present a stylized counterexample, let’s say China cajoles/tries to persuade/demands that the USA: (1) open its agriculture sector to full external competition with NO government subsidies, (2) pays carbon credit costs for accumulated HISTORICAL pollutive activity over the last 200 years, (3) demands that the Gulf of Mexico is international waters and sails a Chinese nuclear sub into aforementioned Gulf, (4) stands trial in the ICJ for war crimes / human rights violations in Abu Garab or Guantanamo Bay. Obviously the USA is going to say “go fly a kite” – does the author think that China has a right to then get ultra upset over the US refusal, and claim that the USA is not reciprocating the relationship?

If you keep asking someone repeatedly to do things that are against their interests, you shouldn’t be surprised if they say no.

January 17, 2011 at 11:25

To Mishmael

Concur with your response to this one-sided analysis of Yates. No wonder US has repeatedly mis-judged many opportunites to strengthen relationship with China when the government used such sub-standard advisors.

Confucius believed “Where there are three persons walking toward me, there will be a teacher among them”. The American beleive “Where there are three perosns walking toward me, I am sure I can teach something to them”

The naïveté and arrogance of the US Government continue to showcase the world its cognitive dissonance, losing influence in global leadership role as well as declining domestic coherence. It’s a sad thing to witness.

January 17, 2011 at 08:45

I think the author would rather enjoy a war with China, as I also think he is rather certain of winning it. Indeed a good beating would solve all of America’s problems, which there is only one – the rise of China.

January 17, 2011 at 02:57

I dont know if this will be allowed, but just in case it is:

January 17, 2011 at 02:51

Deferring to Chinese exceptionalism is not a “concession,” as the author puts it. For most Chinese, it is expected as a just and proper relationship between nations. If The US cannot even live up to a basic model of a “friendly nation” to the Chinese, then indeed many of them will question the validity of cooperation with America itself.

The problem with this author’s analysis, like so many others, is that he is steeped in the mythology of American moral, legislative, and intellectual superiority. He is supremely concerned with advancing American objectives, with the premise that everything America does is morally superior to Chinese actions and will be unanimously supported by third parties. Therefore he would argue, Chinese objectives, concerns, and mirrored accusations are meaningless.

China’s neighbors want peace. That means that the US and China have to be able to both exist in a manner they find satisfying. As it stands, China has become used to the existence of America as is, but not the other way around. America’s impulse to condition Chinese behavior will almost certainly be carried out alone, because it is only popular in America.

January 17, 2011 at 01:22

A neo-con calling China a menace?

Pot, meet kettle

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief