Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be arriving in Beijing at perhaps the diciest moment in US-China relations since Richard Nixon reached out to shake Chou Enlai’s hand on his historic visit to what American conservatives then still called Red China.
Last fall, the Obama administration pulled off a diplomatic revolution in maritime Asia — the coastal and trading states on and around the Asian mainland that stretch in an arc from Korea and Japan, down to Australia and Indonesia, and sweep around through southeast Asia to India and Sri Lanka. Via Meadia has been following this story closely; it is the biggest geopolitical event since 9/11 and, while it builds on a set of US policies that go back at least as far as the Clinton administration and were further developed in the Bush years, the administration’s mix of policies represent a decisive turning point in 21st century Asian history.
The legacy press, still befuddled from drinking too much of the ‘US in decline’ Koolaid so widely peddled in recent years, has still not grasped just how audacious, risky and above all successful the new strategy is: the United States is building a Pacific entente to counter — though not to contain — the consequences of China’s economic growth and military posture in the region. The US is lending its unequivocal support to the smaller Asian states who have boundary disputes with China in the resource-rich, strategically vital South China Sea. It has announced new deployments of troops and new military agreements as it extends its military network from northeast Asia (Japan, Korea, the Pacific islands) south and east to Australia, Singapore and beyond. It continues to deepen its strategic relation with India — Asia’s other nuclear superpower with a billion plus citizens and a country which openly states that the purpose of its (growing) nuclear arsenal is to balance China.
Additionally, the US has launched a new round of trade talks, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP that will open markets dramatically among a group of Asia-Pacific countries. China has not been invited to join.
These are bold moves. Many China specialists were unnerved as the administration rolled the new policy out last fall, fearing that the US push back would strengthen hardliners in Beijing to commit to a full-on anti-US policy.
That hasn’t happened yet, largely because in spite of all the misguided hype about China’s inexorable rise there isn’t actually much Beijing can do about Washington’s new activism. The more it pushes its territorial claims in the South China Sea, the more tightly the other countries will cling to Washington’s skirts. Dumping its dollar hoard would wreck the Chinese economy. Taking a super hard line on Syria and Iran will annoy the Gulf Arabs whose oil keeps China’s factories running. Naval exercises with Russia don’t even impress North Korea, much less cow Washington.
While a formidable power in many respects, and one potentially with a great future, China is simply not a peer competitor of Washington in Asia at this point, and its illusions and pretensions left China uncomfortably exposed when the real world power decided to raise its game in the Pacific Basin.
Fine tuning diplomacy is a difficult thing, especially when adjusting the relations of great powers. Since the administration began to roll out its maritime initiatives last fall, a number of things have happened — some by coincidence, some as unforeseen consequences of steps the US took — that have actually made our China policy much stronger and more effective than planned.
It is these follow-ons and the coincidences more than our actual Asia policies that make Clinton’s Beijing trip so fraught. Look at what has happened since the new US Asia policy launched last year:
- Myanmar, one of China’s only two regional allies, has switched sides, and is working increasingly closely with America’s partners in the Pacific Entente.
- The Philippines have taken a highly visible, confrontational posture toward Chinese ‘interlopers’ in waters Manila claims, and have attempted to engage direct US support.
- China’s economic growth has slowed and its exporters are experiencing shrinking demand even as labor unrest at home puts new pressure on manufacturers.
- The Bo Xilai fiasco has exposed the fissures in China’s leadership, destroyed hopes of a smooth power transition and shone a spotlight on entrenched corruption and the conflict and rivalries at the heart of China’s ruling elite.
- Now, the daring night time escape of Chen Guangcheng and his race across 500 kilometers to the shelter of the US embassy has both enraged and humiliated China’s government — hours before Secretary Clinton’s scheduled arrival.
It is a safe bet that some Chinese nationalists, including people high up in various state and military organizations, are shaking with rage and frustration as they contemplate these events. Conspiracy theories popular in some circles associate the US with the Bo Xilai scandal — after all, it was to the US consulate in Chengdu that Wang Lijun fled and where he spilled the beans about the reign of Bo in Chongqing. Chen’s flight to the embassy will further deepen the angry paranoia in some circles; it will seem obvious to some that he could not have made this escape without more help than a handful of dissidents could provide, and the timing is so spectacular that it must be part of some secret, long prepared American scheme. Put these ‘facts’ together with the new American assertiveness in the region, and many serious people in China will draw the conclusion that the US is trying to do to China what it did to the Soviet Union. Furthermore, they will think we are perilously close to success — so close, that any further concessions and retreats must be resisted as a matter of life and death.
(That within a few months a leading Chinese official and a leading dissident should both have turned in extremis to American diplomats should, by the way, make Americans everywhere stand a little taller. We have somehow managed to acquire a reputation for honest dealing and political courage in China; it should be our goal to preserve that. There are times when it is appropriate to be proud of your country, and this is one of them.)
These events tap into some deep wounds in Chinese historical memory, and fears of being ignored, humiliated and pushed around by a self-righteous and imperial West, never far beneath the surface in modern China, are flaring up. It’s worse because so recently China seemed to be riding so high; many people inside China believed all the hype about China’s rise and America’s decline as thoroughly as any group of European intellectuals, and the shock of realizing how wrong they were is severe.
Meanwhile, the strategy of China’s current leadership had been to use both the Bo Xilai affair and the painful blow back from China’s South China Sea adventure to deepen their hold on power and strengthen the country’s adherence to the path of reform at home, “peaceful rise” abroad. Wen Jiabao was using Bo’s fall as an opportunity to target the entire left-nationalist-populist bloc in Chinese politics and cement the power of the more modernizing, reformist wing of the ruling party. Bo’s fall allowed the political leadership to reassert its leadership over the military as well, as military leaders fell in line to fight against those in the army who favored Bo’s nostalgic, left-tinged nationalism.
From a US perspective, that looked like a pretty good outcome. The Obama administration was ready to approach China with open hands, offering its newly strengthened reformist leadership an opportunity to move forward even as it applied some discreet pressure on issues like Iran and Syria where it hopes for more Chinese help.
The Chen escape seriously complicates that strategy. From the standpoint of China’s leadership, the flight points to a degree of incompetence and laxity that is deeply humiliating to all concerned. How can a single blind man in poor health outwit the security establishment of the most powerful one party state on earth? How can a dissident under house arrest pop up in American hands on the eve of vital talks with the American Secretary of State?
And finally there is another shadow that will hang over Secretary Clinton in Beijing. Japan’s Prime Minister Noda will be meeting President Obama while Secretary Clinton is meeting the Chinese, and the Japanese and American leaders are expected to discuss enhanced security cooperation that would see Japanese troops training on US bases even as the island nation expands military ties, arms shipments and “strategic” aid throughout Asia. High on both President Obama’s and Prime Minister Noda’s to-do list: developing strategies to rein in China’s last remaining regional ally North Korea.
None of this suggests easy bargaining over the fate of Mr. Chen, nor does it make it any easier for the Chinese leadership to cooperate right now on other issues of mutual concern. The Obama administration cannot force Mr. Chen to walk out into Chinese custody without a serious loss of prestige and moral capital; the Chinese authorities cannot let him go without paying a high price.
When the Obama administration set out to check China last year, it did not intend to corner or contain it. But America is a bit stronger and China somewhat weaker and more fragile than most people thought, and our policies have succeeded perhaps a bit more than we might have liked.
Kurt Campbell, Clinton’s chief Asia deputy, flew quietly to Beijing to try to prevent the Chen question from spoiling the summit; no doubt he and Secretary Clinton will have to talk fast and talk well to provide their hosts with some reassurance that the US genuinely does want reasonable and respectful relations with Beijing.
What we all seem to be learning in Asia is that events have a logic and a pace of their own. America can set a policy in motion, but we can’t control or fine tune the consequences of our policies as they ripple out across the world. Many conversations with US officials in this and in prior administrations have left me convinced that the US is not trying to contain China the way we once contained the Soviet Union. While virtually all Americans at senior levels believe that over time economic progress will lead to political change in China, this is because most Americans are hardwired to think in those terms and this whiggish faith in the historical process is not a statement of policy or intent.
Leading Americans in both parties generally hope for a peaceful and gradual reform process rather than violent conflict in China; they do not want to dismember or impoverish China and they would not welcome its disintegration. Nor do Americans see the evolution of a future Asian security order in zero-sum terms. The United States wants to prevent Chinese domination of Asia but we do not want to dominate the region ourselves.
Many Chinese, I have found on my visits there, have a much darker view of our intentions, and see the US and China entangled in a zero sum battle for dominance which only one side can win. For now, it appears that the US, surprisingly to some Chinese analysts, is winning that contest. We should not expect Chinese hard liners to accept that situation with calm and resignation, even if their present options are limited.
Secretary Clinton will be flying from China on to India by way of Bangladesh. With Japan’ Noda in Washington and Clinton in New Delhi, the view from Beijing is likely to remain dark. Additional irritating events are sure to occur. It is in the interest of smaller powers like Vietnam and the Philippines to exploit their new support from Washington for what they can; this will make them more assertive in the South China Sea and new incidents will likely occur that confront the Chinese government with an unpalatable choice between looking weak or enduring a crisis. The question of US arms sales to Taiwan will no doubt come up. North Korea can be expected to misbehave. More actions by more dissidents at home will agitate domestic opinion and affect China’s standing abroad. The global economic uncertainties will force China’s hand on economic policy in ways that may complicate its relations with trading partners, including the US. During the interminable US election campaign now already under way, the two candidates and their surrogates will compete to sound tough about China on trade, security and humanitarian issues.
America’s new stance in Asia is real and it won’t be changing soon. The consequences of that shift for Asian politics and for US-China relations are complex and won’t be fully understood for some time. But this is a murky and even a dangerous time; we wish Secretary Clinton every possible success as she attempts to build bridges between two very different political cultures and world views.
Image courtesy Shutterstock.