Improved atmosphere in US-China relations, but constraints from domestic actors remain
The world is safer this week than last week. The Sino-American summit between presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao succeeded in stabilizing the world’s most important relationship. After more than a year of fluctuating and deteriorating ties, causing unsettling ripple effects throughout the Asia-Pacific region and globally, US-China relations were in dire need of stabilization.
Now the key question is how long can the new stability achieved at the summit last? Any observer of Sino-American relations should be both cautiously optimistic but skeptical. Establishing equilibrium in ties between the US and China has been hard enough over the years – sustaining it has been even harder. If there’s been one overriding characteristic in the relationship over the past 30 years, it has been fluctuation and disequilibrium.
As a result, this summit could not have come at a more propitious time. The period since President Obama’s state visit to China in November 2009 until this past week has been perhaps the worst period in two decades of relations since the Tiananmen incident of 1989. Both sides took advantage of the opportunity to “reset” the tone of the relationship. Now the hope is that a new tone can result in tangible cooperation.
There was, in this observer’s view, an implicit wager by the Obama administration going into the summit: The American side would accord President Hu full respect and dignity befitting the leader of the world’s second largest economy – which would, in turn, hopefully produce a less truculent and more compliant Chinese position on a wide range of issues in which Washington sought Beijing’s cooperation. This was the simple, but smart, strategy.
Tactically, the administration sought to shape the summit atmosphere by rolling out four cabinet secretaries – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of Treasury Timothy Geithner and Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke – in the week leading up to Hu’s arrival to each give tough high-profile speeches outlining American expectations from China across virtually every area of the relationship.
These high-profile speeches by leading cabinet secretaries set the tone going into the summit and allowed the US side to articulate its China policy and concerns about Beijing’s behavior. This was good both for Beijing to hear as well as for building domestic political support behind the administration’s China policy.
The administration coupled the toughness in its pre-summit speeches with the warm, respectful welcome for Hu at the summit. The administration understood well that what Hu and his entourage wanted most from the summit, by significant measure, was largely the symbolism of protocol.
This is true for one important reason: The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) political legitimacy rests in part on restoring China’s international dignity as a major global power. Ever since 1949, when the Communists came to power, this has been the consistent narrative that the CCP has told its people.
Thus, with all the protocol trappings of a high-level state visit – a welcome at Andrews Air Force base by Vice-President Joseph Biden with a phalanx of armored Cadillac limousines, staying at Blair House, a White House South Lawn honor guard reception and 21-gun salute, black-tie state dinner and champagne toasts, Oval Office fireside chats, high-profile public speeches – Hu was accorded the symbolic respect from the world’s leading power, which Chinese believe is due their country, and all-important mianzi, literally “face” but translated more as “respect.” As a result, Xinhua News Agency and other Chinese media beamed an unrelenting series of photo images of Hu playing the role of international statesman back to domestic constituencies in China. The People’s Daily, the flagship newspaper of the CCP, delayed publication of its January 19 edition by an unprecedented six hours to carry images of the summit.
The Obama administration’s wager is, first, that providing President Hu and his party with full symbolic respect will play into the CCP’s domestic legitimacy and sense of security, hopefully undercutting those constituencies in China that perceive the United States is trying to subvert the CCP’s political power, restrain the nation’s rise, and contain China’s growing presence in East Asia and globally. Second, by according Hu respect and a civil tone – on display in Obama’s own welcoming speech, banquet toasts, and comments at the joint press conference – the administration hopes that it might produce a more trustful and cooperative China in addressing the long list of American concerns inside China, throughout East Asia, and globally.
The detailed 41-point joint statement released by the two sides at the conclusion of the summit was a good step in the right direction, setting out common positions and perspectives on a range of issues. But so too did the joint statement issued at Obama’s November 2009 summit in Beijing – only for it to become a stillborn document that immediately foundered on a series of irritants and actions by both sides. Time will tell whether the 2011 statement has more staying power than the last one, as both countries have powerful bureaucratic constituencies that remain distrustful of each other with huge budgets aimed at countering the other. Differing political values and systems will continue to be a barrier; volatile nationalism in China remains a wildcard; economic protectionism embodied in low renminbi and competition is not going to disappear; mutual strategic interests in Asia only partially converge and China’s military modernization will continue to alter the regional balance of power; respective worldviews differ and global interests are increasingly competitive. These realities are not changed by the successful Obama-Hu summit.
While some skepticism about the future of US-China relations is thus warranted for these reasons, nonetheless the summit did produce new and much-needed stability and improved levels of trust. What it did not produce, though, are new mechanisms of institutionalized interaction to follow-through on the lengthy joint statement. The relationship remains driven by episodic delegation exchanges and short visits, while what’s needed is a new model of institutionalized working groups that forge tangible cooperation across bilateral, functional, regional and global issues 365 days per year.
Looking to the future, cooperative moves by both sides will likely take place in a “parallel” rather than joint fashion. Whether the issue is North Korea or Iran, commercial or currency differences, release of imprisoned dissidents or increasing press freedoms, Beijing’s ability to appear to be overtly cooperating with a US agenda will be severely constrained by domestic nationalistic pressures and bureaucratic constituencies. The Chinese military, internal security and intelligence services, protected domestic industries, and the Communist Party propaganda apparatus all have vested institutional interests in countering American influence and, to some extent, benefit from an antagonistic relationship with the United States. For its part, the US military, intelligence services, protectionist and xenophobic elements in Congress, the human rights community, and other domestic actors similarly have a stake in an adversarial relationship with China.
While these domestic actors will no doubt play their constraining roles, for the moment both sides seem pleased with the outcome of the summit. Whether they can now convert the improved atmosphere into practical gains remains to be seen.
This essay was originally published in the YaleGlobal.