JR’s Weekender: The Primacy of Politics

Le Monde, April 14, Nuclear Security Summit coverage

Le Monde, April 14, Nuclear Security Summit coverage

Three people stated some unusually frank views about American-Chinese relations on May 24, on two different platforms. One was Chinese Read Admiral Guan Youfei (關友飛), who, according to the Washington Post‘s correspondent John Pomfret, addressed an American delegation of 65 officials at Diaoyutai State Guest House in Beijing on that day and told them that everything that was going right in relations between the two countries was because of China – and everything that went wrong, he continued, was America’s fault.

Pomfret disagrees with U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates and other officials who believe that Guan’s outburst, if anything, reflected the views of China’s military, but not those of its civilian leadership:

[..] interviews in China with a wide range of experts, Chinese officials and military officers indicate that Guan’s rant — for all its discomfiting bluster — actually represents the mainstream views of the Chinese Communist Party, and that perhaps the real outliers might be those in China’s government who want to side with the United States.

The other two outspoken people on American-Chinese relations – of May 24 – were Elizabeth Economy and Adam Segal. In an article for Foreign Affairs,  published on the same day when Guan spoke his and other Chinese leaders’ minds, suggests that it was time to defriend China: “The quest for the illusory ‘G-2’ has wasted everyone’s time for long enough.”

Michael Turton, a blogger from Taiwan, seconds Pomfret’s remarks and adds:

As one of the sources later in the article commented, the Army follows the Party. Guan is not isolated in his thinking, but rather, mainstream. A neat equation is manifest here: victimization + expansion + nationalism + paranoia = war. That’s where we’re headed. It should be obvious that the path the US is heading down is delusional, though I suspect also that much of the “delusion” is due to the fact that so many policy-shapers are doing business with China. What we should be doing is pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and refocusing on building our Asian trade, military, and diplomatic relationships, and pumping money into rebuilding the US infrastructure and industrial base. But Bush and Obama have us doing what’s really important: spending hundreds of billions to make Central Asia safe for Chinese expansionism.

protest against biased German media

"Victims Are Us", Munich, March 29, 2008: Overseas Chinese in southern Germany accuse German media of "muzzling their voice"

Turton puts it in a tougher way than Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s elder statesman, but it’s the same argument in terms of desirable action – that America should strike a balance in East Asia – even if Lee sees no bitter, irreconcilable ideological conflict between the US and a China that has enthusiastically embraced the market.

The problem isn’t that Beijing has its own ideas about how to participate in international politics, economics, and culture. Lee underestimates the ideological differences. A commenter who actually agreed with Lee suggested that the old man carries the weight of Oriental Cultural Value to communicate & interact with the existing & present super powers (USA & EUROPE).

Which may explain the blind angle in Lee Kuan Yew’s perception when it comes to ideologies. It would take views like the one expressed by Turton to have a more comprehensive picture of China’s apporach to international affairs – and to develop a political concept to deal with China’s approach.

Rear Admiral Guan really highlighted the actual problem with his philippic of May 24 – the wide-spread Chinese belief that China can’t do wrong. In these terms, the world is facing a fairly psychopathic country – and some are now realizing that they helped to empower it during the past three decades, without having helped it to overcome “old pains”.

The initial (and still continuing endeavors) by the Obama administration to seek common ground with Beijing, for the sake of international cooperation on Iran or North Korea, or working against climate change, or simply for business interests, were – and maybe still are – reasonable. When Barack Obama visited China in November 2009, he apparently did everything he could for a “good atmosphere” during the talks.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, a British historian, wrote in March this year that

China has succumbed to hubris. It has mistaken the soft diplomacy of Barack Obama for weakness, mistaken the US credit crisis for decline, and mistaken its own mercantilist bubble for ascendancy. There are echoes of Anglo-German spats before the First World War, when Wilhelmine Berlin so badly misjudged the strategic balance of power and over-played its hand.

There may be a lot of truth in the China 2010 / Germany 1914 comparison, especially in the mixture of, indeed, hubris and paranoia. But Pritchard himself also misjudges the situation to some extent. Yes, Obama’s approach is soft in the gestures he chooses. But it was exactly during his visit that he told the Chinese leaders that he would eventually meet the Dalai Lama. Kenneth Lieberthal, in a Politico-moderated chat on March 3, said that

“[it] is, I believe, a misconception to see America’s policy toward China as having toughened suddenly in 2010. President Obama came into office with a very pragmatic approach to China. He saw that U.S.-China cooperation (or at least our not undercutting each other) could be important to handling major global issues more effectively. Having no past experience with China, he determined to spend much of 2009 establishing the basis for a very good working relationship with Hu Jintao and other Chinese leaders. That entailed, among other things, postponing decisions that inevitably would raise tensions (such as Taiwan arms sales) where those decisions could be put back for a period of months without doing harm to other interests. But the U.S. informed the Chinese very clearly during 2009 that early in 2010 we would be making some of those decisions. For example in his November trip to Beijing in 2009, President Obama directly told Hu Jintao that Obama would see the Dalai Lama in early 2010. It is, therefore, incorrect to see these 2010 decisions as a change in U.S. policy. They, in fact, reflect the implementation of a consistent U.S. strategy — and one that the Chinese were well aware of during 2009.”

The Economist, more recently, presents two different views on China. One is that making room for a new superpower should not be confused with giving way to it. Another (the Economist authors’ names usually don’t appear with the articles) suggests that the only thing more dangerous than dealing with China is not dealing with it. China is already well on the way to becoming the world’s biggest market – etc..  Yet even the second school within the magazine which recommends that [foreign] companies need to show an almost exaggerated respect for China’s traditions still concedes that companies should never abandon their principles for short-term gains. Freedom of information is so central to Google’s identity that it was right to declare it sacrosanct and repudiate its previous willingness to negotiate it away for commercial advantage. That said, the Economist attaches a lot of importance to an  exaggerated respect without understanding (or pointing out)  that practising such a slavish respect to Beijing will, in the long run, change business peoples’ own perceptions along with their practise. You can’t howl with the wolves every day and still be yourself. Dissidents in China understand how compliance in the wrong place will turn them into slaves – and they are paying a much higher price than “losing a market”. Reading the Economist, I have to agree with Turton that political choices (and relations with other countries and regimes are political) must be made by elected officials, not by business. The Foreign Policy authors are speaking to politicians, and certainly not to business people. Authors like Elizabeth Economy and Adam Segal should be listened to carefully, and their advice be heeded.

To do away with the primacy of politics in democratic countries when dealing with a totalitarian country like China is a reliable recipe for an incalculable mess.

So how about defriending China? I imagine that the authors or the Foreign Affairs editors chose this title to catch our eyes, and if so, I’m sure it worked fine. You don’t set an agenda by using sober language these days. But in practical terms, both the Obama administration (which continues to seek common ground with Beijing) and the growingly impatient legislators – US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner faced increased pressure from the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday – are doing their due jobs. In the end – and this “end” will most probably be some four to eight weeks ahead of the mid-term elections on November 2 this year unless substantial progress will have been made in negotiations with Beijing by then – the Obama administration will take the “firm line” that Congress and public opinion demand.

Neither that, however, nor continuing arms supplies to Taiwan, need to spell the end of American-Chinese relations. It isn’t even about defriending China. To defriend someone requires that there is a  friendship existing at all, and there is no reason to call China in its current shape  a friend anyway. Here, it seems, many westerners simply adopted a Chinese term. Guanxi (relations) are always you hao (good friendship) in Chinese.

Besides, why actively breaking a friendship, whatever the concept means? China’s leadership makes its decisions on what they deem China’s national interest. So should America, and so should every country. Making decisions that anger Beijing aren’t about defriending China. Beijing must decide if it wants to defriend itself. And the Chinese people need to make their own observations and choices, even under a dictatorship.


A Division of Labor that can’t Work, Febr 23, 2010

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