Narratives about how globalization has fundamentally transformed great power politics and the impact of individuals and non-governmental organizations (NGO) in international politics tend to be overblown. That being said, the presence of individuals acting as spoliers in the U.S.-China relations is undeniably on the rise, and leaders in both countries will have to carefully manage the situations they create to ensure they don’t upset the overall trajectory of the bilateral relationship.
Of course, individual spoilers in the China-U.S. relationship are not an entirely new aspect. America, after all, hosts a large number of Chinese dissidents and the U.S. embassy in Beijing even provided refuge to Fang Lizhi and his wife for a year following the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.
Still, the number of spoilers have clearly risen in recent years. Although different from the rest, perhaps the first such spoiler is Bradley Manning, who released, via Wikileaks, thousands of U.S. State Department dispatches. While this wasn’t directed specifically at the U.S.-China relationship, many of the leaks contained embarrassing information for China. Although Chinese leaders handled the incident with commendable restraint, Manning’s actions—among other things— likely undermined any possibility that Chinese leaders would agree to discuss with their U.S. counterparts how to handle the aftermath of a state collapse in North Korea, so to avoid a direct collusion of military forces.
Another spoiler incident occurred in February 2012 when Wang Lijun, a vice-mayor and police chief of Chongqing, took refuge in the U.S. consulate in Chengdu. It was widely believed Wang was seeking asylum from the United States. Wang was a close confidante of Chongqing Mayor Bo Xilai, and it was later learned that Wang fled to the U.S. consulate after a falling out with Bo that saw some of his close allies detained by local security forces.
The U.S. handled the situation wisely. After undoubtedly collecting useful intelligence from Wang during the twenty-four hours he spent in the U.S. consulate, American officials worked out a deal with Wang and the central government in Beijing in which Wang would avoid being taken by officials under Bo Xilai. Besides acknowledging Wang’s presence at the consulate—which the State Department depicted as a planned official meeting—the U.S. remained tight-lipped on the situation.
The entire incident seemed to work out in Washington’s favor when Wang provided the evidence that allowed former President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao to purge their rival, Bo Xilai, from the CCP. The U.S. likely won some goodwill from Xi Jinping, who no longer had to worry about Bo challenging his power as president.
An even more contentious incident occurred just a few months later in April 2012, when the blind lawyer and human rights activist, Chen Guangcheng, escaped from house arrest in Shandong Province and made his way to Beijing. He was taken in by the U.S. embassy days later, although U.S. officials refused to confirm that initially.
More so than Wang’s case, Chen’s escape put the U.S. and China in a “diplomatic quandary,” as the New York Times put it. For one thing, unlike Wang, who was rumored to be a corrupt and brutal local official, Chen was a private citizen and a human rights activist at that. This fact and his efforts to stop forced abortions in China endeared him to the anti-abortion movement in the U.S. Republican Party, which further increased pressure on the Obama administration.
Furthermore, all this occurred at a time when the U.S. and China were hoping to prepare frayed relations during the upcoming U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing, which was scheduled to begin in early May. Chen’s case dominated the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, and the U.S. and certain U.S. officials were harshly criticized by the Chinese media for the decision to allow Chen to enter the embassy.
In the end, however, the case was handled extremely well by both sides. An agreement was initially worked out in which Chen left the embassy on his own, and was brought to a hospital in Beijing. Even after he subsequently caused a stir by deciding he wanted to go to the U.S. instead of remaining in China as initially planned. Both China and the U.S. maintained calm during this hiccup, and the incident did not affect broader U.S.-China relations in the months ahead.
Edward Snowden is of course the latest spoiler in the U.S.-China relationship. In many ways, Snowden’s case resembles Chen’s from last year (although there are at least as many differences). Specifically, Snowden fled to Hong Kong with evidence about alleged abuses of government power in the U.S., just as Chen fled to the U.S. embassy to expose abuses of power in the Chinese government.
Like Chen, Snowden made his move ahead of a crucial U.S.-China summit, and one in which cybersecurity was slated to play a central role. As was the case with Chen making his escape ahead of the U.S.-China dialogue, Snowden’s timing was no accident.
Although Snowden’s revelations certainly altered the substance of the Sunnyland summit, initially both China and the U.S. handled the situation quite well. China’s state media stayed silent about Snowden’s presence in Hong Kong, and the U.S. treated it like a domestic matter while quietly cooperating with Hong Kong authorities to have Snowden arrested and eventually extradited.
This soon changed, starting with China’s state media beginning to gloat about Snowden’s disclosures of U.S. domestic surveillance. The situation did not really take a nosedive, however, until Snowden went from making allegations of U.S. government surveillance on American citizens, to discussing U.S. cyber-espionage efforts against Hong Kong and China. This provoked outrage inside China, including among its leaders, as reflected in the increasingly harsh criticism that has been directed at the U.S. in recent days.
The U.S., for its own part, was infuriated when Hong Kong authorities allowed Snowden to board a flight to Moscow despite the charges the U.S. had filed against Snowden, and the fact that his U.S. passport had been revoked. Notably, Hong Kong’s decision to allow Snowden to leave was reportedly made at the direction of Beijing. The Obama administration reacted angrily to Snowden’s flight, with White House spokesman James Carney saying the “decision unquestionably has a negative impact on the U.S.-China relationship,” and warning of unspecified “repercussions.” China’s Foreign Ministry brushed aside such concerns on Tuesday, calling them “groundless.”
Although the Obama administration’s frustration is understandable, it mustn’t let the Snowden incident undermine Sino-U.S. relations. At this point in time, Chinese (and Russian officials, for that matter) officials have gathered all the intelligence from Snowden that they are going to get. The damage has already been done, and the White House’s actions at this point are more about appeasing domestic constituents and deterring future “Snowdens” that, while important, are not worth causing a rupture in U.S.-China relations over.
Similarly, given the amount of U.S. criticism they have faced for their own cyber-espionage activities, Chinese officials are understandably gloating in Snowden’s revelations. Additionally, failing to express anger over these activities would be unpalatable to many ordinary Chinese. Still, the Chinese government must be careful not to let its rhetoric cause a further deterioration in relations with the U.S. This would be a shame; after all, nothing Snowden told Hong Kong media was unknown to Chinese officials.