Features | Politics | East Asia

Sino-US Ties Aren’t That Bad

The Diplomat speaks with Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Freeman Chair in China Studies, about US-Sino tensions, China’s alleged snub of Barack Obama and the country’s future role in the international community.

There seems to have been a noticeable shift in tone in the Obama administration’s approach to China, with the statement of intent to meet the Dalai Lama, the announcement of the arms sale to Taiwan and concerns being voiced over Google and hacking from China. Why is this happening now and does it reflect a substantive shift?

I don’t think there’s been a major shift in the administration’s approach to China. I think when looking at this we have to look back to early in the Obama administration, when it attached priority to cooperation with China — particularly on global issues like climate change, recovery from the financial crisis and non-proliferation. I’d say those are the three priorities that the Obama administration wanted to work with China on. And so to establish the groundwork for a cooperative relationship, some issues were postponed until the second year of the Obama administration.

It’s these issues are now coming to the fore, and that explains at least some of the areas of friction we’re seeing. For example, President Obama opted not to meet with the Dalai Lama when he visited Washington DC last October and chose instead to have that meeting probably next week. The same is true of the arms sale to Taiwan. Obama inherited the rest of a package of arms sales that the George W. Bush administration had approved but not sent the notifications to Congress for, so in the end it was inevitable that they would make the decision they did because the United States’ interest in maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and supplying Taiwan with defensive weapons remains the same — there’s really been no change from the earlier administrations.

But there are other problems that are coming to the fore that are, we could say, more coincidental, such as the problems with Google, for example, and the questions of privacy and cyber-security it raised. I think that was somewhat unexpected as a public issue, although it has been the focus of great attention internally in the government. And then there are other issues, such as concerns about trade. We did of course see some of these in the first year of the administration – Obama slapped tariffs on imports of Chinese tyres, and that was unexpected in Beijing. But we see these cases continuing in a tit-for-tat manner where both sides are imposing tariffs and taking cases to the WTO. And there are also issues relating to concerns about China’s currency being under-valued, and there’s probably more attention on this issue now than there was last year.

So there have been a lot of issues piling up, and I think the Obama administration is now paying attention to them. Having said that, I don’t think that means the Obama administration has concluded that it can’t cooperate with China, or that it needs to send a tougher signal to Beijing in order to bring it to heel or force it to accept our view on things — I don’t think that’s what’s going on at all. I think in areas where the US and China can work together, where they have overlapping interests, then the Obama administration will be happy to do so.

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China appears to have taken a hard line on the arms sale to Taiwan. Were you surprised by China’s reaction? Traditionally when these arms sales have gone through it has protested by suspending military cooperation, for example. But the threat of sanctions against US firms seems to be something new.

Whether I’m surprised will depend on whether or not the threats are carried out. If it turns out to be mostly rhetoric, then I would say no. But if they actually go ahead and impose sanctions on US companies selling arms to Taiwan then yes, I would be surprised as I don’t think that’s in China’s interests or in the interests of US-China relations.

But the background of China’s reaction is important here. I think coming out of the financial crisis that there’s really been an assessment in China that the gap in power between the United States and China and other leading powers has narrowed significantly. And at the same time, the Obama administration has emphasized its great desire — and even need — for cooperation with China. This has been interpreted by China as translating into greater leverage for Beijing over Washington on some of these issues, a view I think that was fed in part by the language in the joint statement that was signed by President Obama when he was in China under which both countries agreed to respect each others’ core interests.

This agreement has been widely interpreted in China both by the public and deliberately by some of the elites — despite those who negotiated it I think understanding what was intended by the US — as meaning that the US would be more accommodating of China’s sensitivities on the issues of Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.

But I think all of this was really a miscalculation. I don’t think the United States is ready to reconsider its longstanding policy of selling arms to Taiwan, especially as China’s military build-up against Taiwan continues rather relentlessly and our partners in Taipei are concerned about appearing weak and vulnerable. Domestically, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou is charged with leaning toward Beijing, and so he’s been asking the United States for more visible signs of support so he can show a policy toward China that is founded on a very strong relationship with the United States. So the arms sale was important in that regard as well.

China has yet to really show its hand as to how it’s going to follow through on these threats over the arms sale. I think we all expect some exchanges — particularly high?level exchanges — will be postponed. US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was supposed to travel to China and I expect that will be postponed. But interestingly, the Chinese seem to be willing to go ahead with some of the low and mid-level exchanges, and that’s also a change for the better. I think it reflects an understanding in China that both countries suffer when they completely suspend all conversations between the two militaries.

One of the areas where some progress is being made is on the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement. It’s essentially a dialogue mechanism where the US and China talk about safety at sea — trying to develop some rules of the road so we avoid collisions and the kinds of confrontations that took place last spring in March and May when US surveillance vessels were operating in China’s Exclusive Economic Zone and the Chinese responded by trying to force those ships to leave. There could have been a dangerous accident in that situation, so I expect this kind of dialogue mechanism to continue, which is a good thing.

Just on this issue of US-China ties, what did you make of Beijing’s supposed snub of Obama at the Copenhagen talks? What would China see itself as gaining from something like that?

I think first, there’s been some misreporting — the stories get reported over and over again and then they’re taken for granted as fact when they’re really not. One example here is that although the Chinese sent lower level officials to multilateral meetings, they didn’t send lower level officials to meet with President Obama. Premier Wen Jiabao had an hour-long meeting with President Obama in the early afternoon on the day that he was there and then in the early evening he was supposed to meet with Premier Wen at 7pm, but then ended up joining him in an ongoing meeting with the South Africans, Indians and Brazilians.

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So I think that these reports that China snubbed Obama are incorrect and that the Chinese decided to send their vice foreign minister to some of these multilateral meetings for other reasons that had nothing to do with the United States. In fact, the outcome of the climate change conference in Copenhagen was a positive story for US-China relations. Others may see it as a mixed outcome for climate change, but I think for US-China relations it was positive. China had agreed to some carbon intensity numerical targets before it came to Copenhagen, and I think although most countries were hoping that we could get China to agree to more, it turned out that was their bottom line. The discussions were really not going anywhere on the issue of international monitoring and verification because the Chinese were staunchly opposed and I think close to the end of the meeting we were really close to an outcome that would have had China and the US blaming each other for the failure to reach any agreement. But at the end of the day, President Obama and Premier Wen, along with the other members of the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) countries really hammered out at least a political commitment that they could use as a basis for going forward. And I think that President Obama and Premier Wen felt that they both worked well together, and they reached a compromise that was a function of having engaged with each other in a serious manner.

One of the ongoing concerns — and frustrations — with China in the West seems to be an apparent reluctance by Beijing to assume what Western powers see as responsibility commensurate with its new economic and political strength. Do you see China taking on a more constructive leadership role?

I certainly see China as reluctant to take on international responsibilities, and the Chinese themselves admit to this. They say China is a developing country, that it has huge problems at home; that they have to deal with vast environmental problems; they have to deal with huge disparities in income between urban and rural areas; that they have lots of people who are unemployed – all sorts of challenges. And I think the Chinese therefore want to select very carefully where they get involved and how they get involved. They don’t want to get overstretched in their commitments overseas and get distracted from what they see as their major task, which is domestic construction. And this goes beyond economic construction, and really is about building China’s comprehensive national power, science and technology and basis for greater soft power and its military power.

The Chinese are willing to get more involved in areas that they see as closely connected to the country’s national interests, and I would cite North Korea as perhaps the best example — a country on its border that now has nuclear weapons. Here, China is working diplomatically with other countries to try and get North Korea back to the Six-Party talks process and back to their commitments to denuclearize, and this is an area where China has felt it is worth putting in time and energy.

There has been a guideline in China’s foreign policy that was actually developed in the late 1980s when Deng Xiaoping was in office. And at that time, he developed this idea that China should essentially keep a low profile — not stick its neck out in the international community. So although China wants to make a difference and be SEEN as responsible — they certainly want a reputation as a responsible player — they don’t want to get overextended. And there are a couple of good examples where China is already playing a positive role internationally, for example there are a very large number of peacekeepers through the UN peace keeping operations, and they have also joined the antipiracy operation off the Gulf of Aden.

I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interests for China to be developing power projection capabilities or to start sending combat troops to UN operations and I would also argue that we should not be encouraging China to be sending combat troops to Afghanistan – I don’t think we should be encouraging China at this point to be sending forces overseas and really reconsidering its long standing position that it doesn’t.

Basically, I believe our interests will be better served if China’s process of becoming a bigger regional and global player happens in an evolutionary way and is done gradually. So, it suits China to keep this low profile and to work assiduously to assuage the concerns of the countries, not only in the region but also elsewhere in the world.