Since February, there have been repeated incidents in U.S.-China relations that could have produced significant strains and disruptions between Beijing and Washington. Nonetheless, relations so far have remained productive and durable. This is likely a product of the Obama administration’s top-level initiative since 2010 to draw China’s leaders into personal engagement in managing affairs to avoid or deal with tensions.
The latest test was the bizarre and heroic episode last week of the “barefoot” blind lawyer and human rights protestor Chen Guangcheng finding his way out of extra-legal confinement and being spirited into the U.S. embassy in Beijing. Despite what must have been serious differences between China’s security forces and foreign policy officials over how to treat him and the Americans, Chen has so far been able to continue planning to take his family to the United States to study law in the next few weeks.
When the former police chief of Chongqing visited the U.S. consulate in Chengdu in February, he revealed innermost secrets of crimes and corruption by family and associates of a potential top leader, Bo Xilai, the party secretary of Chongqing. Reports are rife but unconfirmed that the chief of the security forces in China, Zhou Yongkang, has since suffered lost influence due to his relationship with Bo. Yet there’s an absence of signs that the security forces are seeking to retaliate by making a case that the United States needs to be taught a lesson about its diplomatic interference in China’s internal affairs.
Two weeks ago, in a letter to Congress intended to unblock the nomination of new Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Mark Lippert, the White House promised to consider, but not necessarily sell, new military aircraft to Taiwan. This is a perennially neuralgic issue for Beijing, yet it seems so far to have brushed the letter off more as internal maneuvering over personnel than a real sign of an impending arms sale, which is an accurate assessment.
Quite impressively, China swallowed all these events and proceeded to host a comparatively productive and smooth Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) last week. Though most observers wouldn’t have noticed the conclave, given the excited reporting about Chen Guangcheng that dominated the news, it produced modest breakthroughs on financial services investment, the currency regime, and expanded high technology exports. The companion Strategic Security Dialogue between the two militaries also met smoothly and at greater length than previously. These outcomes are respectable in what is a sensitive political year in both countries.
Further, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie traveled to the United States in the immediate aftermath of the media turmoil last week for the first visit at his level in nine years, a gap produced by successive spats that made the People’s Liberation Army reluctant to meet. At neither of these two recent military meetings did China raise the Taiwan arms letter, when its officers could easily have done so in the context of other discussion about continued U.S. sales to Taiwan.
China’s relative flexibility in the negotiations over the fate of Chen, when it could have escalated allegations of the U.S. embassy violating the Vienna Convention through inappropriate activity at its diplomatic posts, additionally indicates Beijing doesn’t want trouble with the United States now or during this political year.
Why has Beijing been so restrained and relatively cooperative? The possibility can’t be ruled out that the strife within China’s leadership ranks, though almost invisible to non-participants, is so delicate and tricky that it’s easier and conceivably safer for the leaders to compartmentalize the U.S. relationship and insulate it from Chinese politics. Still, U.S. missions in China have been so directly involved in those politics that it’s hard to imagine some elements, possibly the security forces, wouldn’t want to play the “U.S. card” to defend their interests. Indeed, there may be a mountain of magma building that we can’t now detect.
Further, the consequences of the fall of Bo may have thrown the balance of vested interests in the ruling Politburo Standing Committee out of kilter. Under the nine-member body, consensus became the watchword and possibly a major impediment to new directions in policy. In the Chen affair, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao could well have found themselves able to make decisions quickly, with the S&ED calendar pressing them to act, without laborious consensus building. The speech Hu made to the S&ED suggests a context of considerable self-confidence and articulated a long-term constructive approach to relations with the United States. And of course, traditional clumsy handling of the Chen case would have undermined Hu’s campaign to build China’s “soft power.”
On present evidence the more likely explanation is that the Obama administration’s diplomatic initiative in September 2010 – when tensions were rising between China and the United States and several of China’s neighbors – to create a positive agenda of interaction and cooperation between the two countries’ leaders is now paying dividends. Reciprocal visits by their presidents and vice presidents, and regular communications between the secretary of state and national security advisor and their Chinese counterparts have reduced suspicions about the other’s intent.
When, for example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appealed privately to her opposite number in the S&ED, Dai Bingguo, for flexibility in disposing of the case of Chen, Beijing resisted what must have been a temptation to toy with the Americans over their diplomatic missteps and changing requests. Beijing made a simple declaration that Chen was a free citizen and welcome to study abroad, and so far hasn’t permitted that plan to be impeded and reportedly has sent a government official to help Chen prepare.
If this analysis is correct, the recent episodes illuminate the value of constructive diplomacy of a personal nature at the top levels, even between countries with such different political systems and cultures. It suggests that it should prove durable for the remainder of this year, even in the face of further tough tests. This is a remarkable achievement in light of the widespread belief that distrust between the two countries and their leaders is deepening.
Douglas H. Paal is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He previously served as vice chairman of JPMorgan Chase International and as the unofficial US representative to Taiwan as director of the American Institute in Taiwan. This is an edited version of an article that was originally published here.