Features | Security | East Asia

Beijing Opera Heads to Washington

Forty years on, the bet Nixon and Kissinger placed on China’s future direction looks increasingly misplaced, argues Stephen Yates.

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.

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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.

True to script, in both instances the United States offered concessions in advance of any helpful strategic action taken by China. The Chinese have a history of pocketing such gestures in exchange for happy visits and future talks. This is a taste of what we should expect from the Hu state visit next week.

President Hu comes with the single objective of showing China’s other leaders that he was able to secure proper treatment and respect from the United States. The content of meetings doesn’t matter much. Just ensure there’s an ample supply of pageantry uninterrupted by Falun Gong, Taiwanese democrats, and Tibetan monks.

The Obama administration is likely to oblige with a great deal of stately hospitality. There’s no way the United States would ever treat Hu as the Chinese treated Gates, openly testing a major new weapons platform during the visit.

And in return, expect Obama to get little in return, other than the bill.

The time has come to question this approach. What are our returns on this bet after 40 years? Some good has come of it, for sure, but how much? Enough to merit continuation of the exceptional treatment of China relative to other powers? China is no longer an infant nation. The People’s Republic is now 61 years old. Time for a more mature, more normal relationship.

President Obama needs to press President Hu more forcefully on areas where China’s actions need to change — North Korea, Iran, human rights, and unfair trade practices. And he can’t just do it in private. Otherwise this symbolic bow to rising Chinese power will further weaken US leadership in Asia and Obama’s leadership in the world.

(This is an edited version of an article originally published by The Daily Caller here).

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Stephen Yates is president of DC International Advisory and former Deputy Assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs (2001 – 2005).