By Daniel Gearin
So what was behind China’s more assertive, even vociferous approach last year? One reason that has been cited for China’s apparent confidence was its ability to successfully weather the global financial crisis relative to most of the rest of the world. As one of the first countries to stabilize growth and begin a recovery, leaders in Beijing emerged more confident and believed that China’s development model had been vindicated. Last year, meanwhile, China surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy, and it has continued to produce high rates of growth while many other nations have made sluggish progress at best. This year, though, and despite its continued strong economic growth, China appears to have broken with last year’s more belligerent diplomatic posture.
There are several likely motivations behind the change in tone. One reason for the determination to make sure Hu’s Washington visit go smoothly was that this will have been his last trip to the United States as China’s leader, making it an important means of helping establish his legacy. It also helped create a favourable atmosphere for Sino-US relations at a critical time for China, as it prepares for a change in leadership next year.
More importantly, though, China’s growing assertiveness last year only succeeded in alarming the international community. Many Asian countries responded by welcoming an increased US military presence in the region, allowing the Obama administration to capitalize on the changed atmosphere by launching a ‘strategic dialogue’ with Vietnam, announcing a ‘comprehensive partnership’ with Indonesia, launching new defence ties with Cambodia, and strengthening existing security relationships with Japan, South Korea, and Singapore.
The CCP leadership, fully aware of these developments, has responded with a renewed charm offensive policy. Still, although this is clearly a positive change, the implications for Sino-US ties shouldn’t be overstated. As Hu demonstrated with his remarks on Taiwan and Tibet during a lunch address last month, there are still certain areas where China will maintain its traditionally hard-line stance. In addition, the United States shouldn’t expect China to suddenly allow its currency to quickly appreciate, to implement sanctions against North Korea, or make any number of other policy reversals.
This doesn’t, of course, mean that the Obama administration shouldn’t take advantage of the improved atmosphere. But it should also continue to press the gains it made in the region over the past year, even while reaching out to an outwardly cooperative China to advance its agenda.
It’s far from clear how long Beijing’s shifting attitude will last. But as long as it does, the United States should act on any opportunity to improve security and reduce tensions in the region.
Daniel Gearin is a researcher at the Center for a New American Security in Washington DC.