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.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.