China, What's Next?

The Return of Smile Diplomacy

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China, What's Next?

The Return of Smile Diplomacy

China is backing away from last year’s assertive posture. Whatever the reason, the US shouldn’t expect a transformation in ties.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of the US media’s attention during Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit to Washington last month was focused on remarks he made on human rights (and the translation difficulties that occurred during his press conference with US President Barack Obama).

Unfortunately, this has meant that some of the main implications of what was said at the summit went overlooked. Indeed, recent media reports in China hint at an interesting development in Sino-US relations—the increasingly assertive face of Chinese diplomacy that has been on display, particularly over the past year, may be giving way to one of reassurance and relative restraint. Beijing, it seems, has recognized that it overplayed its hand in 2010 with its aggressive international posture, and is now trying to salvage its tattered reputation.

Even before Hu arrived in Washington, several of China’s most authoritative publications signalled Beijing’s tone was changing, with articles stressing the need for cooperation and friendly relations between China and the United States. Positive reports of the visit continued throughout the week, and the visit was accorded a level of attention by the Chinese media not seen for this kind of event in more than a decade. The People’s Daily, widely viewed as the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), devoted its first two pages to the visit, while other media sources stated that Hu’s trip would prove to be as ‘historically significant’ as Deng Xiaoping’s momentous visit in 1979. The overwhelmingly positive coverage of the visit, and the degree of attention it received, reflects Beijing’s desire to smooth relations with Washington after a prolonged period of tension.

The real reasons behind the frayed relations between the two countries since Barack Obama took office aren’t entirely clear. Of course, the arms sale to Taiwan last January (followed shortly after by a meeting between Obama and the Dalai Lama) are obvious sources of strain. Yet, Beijing’s response to both incidents seemed uncharacteristically assertive compared with similar moves under the Bush administration. And anyway, China’s ire wasn’t reserved for the United States; its attitude also hardened toward other nations in the region and beyond. Perhaps the clearest two examples were the public berating of Japan over the detention of a Chinese fishing trawler captain, and Beijing’s sharp criticism of the West a couple of months later after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to political dissident Liu Xiaobo.

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.