Sunday, January 23, 2011

Building Mutual Trust between US and China has a long way to go

China’s President Hu Jintao has concluded his state visit and returned to Beijing. By most accounts, his visit was considered a virtually unqualified success—for him and for his host, President Barrack Obama—in a rare win-win in the bilateral relations.

The mainstream media considered the visit a win for Obama and his team for successfully presenting all their concerns to Hu: Secretary of State Clinton on North Korea, Treasury Secretary Geithner on the value of the RMB and Commerce Secretary Locke on protection of intellectual property and level procurement policy inside China. Obama in his joint press conference with Hu mentioned his concern on human rights. All the potentially confrontational issues were delivered diplomatically and in easy to digest doses.

Hu’s visit to Congress the day after the state dinner was the most problematic, but the Congressional leaders despite threatening to confront the leader of China had their meetings with Hu behind closed doors. Afterwards they could claim before the press to have raised their concerns with Hu and expressed satisfaction with the outcome.

Hu also won because he got the high profile treatment and honor accorded to him as the head of a major nation and there were no unpleasant surprises or glitches, except for a minor one when everyone expected simultaneous translation at the joint conference and there were none.

The usual China bashing howlers and screechers were kept on the fringe and did not steal the limelight as they might have wished. The confusion at the White House press conference did present Russ Limbaugh the opportunity to make a complete ass of himself on national radio. He broke out with a 20 second verbal burst that sounded like a savage recently descended from the trees. Limbaugh’s infantile braying alleged to imitate Hu’s remarks offended many and did nothing but tarnished his own image.

So is this a new beginning for the US China bilateral relations? I don’t think so. Some fundamental differences between the two sides have not been resolved and until they are, it will be pretty much business as before. The $45 billion of potential export business that Hu’s advance team brought to the US certainly made the whole visit go down more smoothly but does not represent a permanent cure.

How to deal with Taiwan represents by far the most challenging issue facing both sides. In Obama’s remarks at the press conference, he referred to the Taiwan Relations Act, but in the joint statement about the US commitment to one China policy, there were no reference to TRA. Thus, China could claim to have made progress on this issue while the US can claim that nothing has affected the status quo. In fact, until the US renounces selling arms to Taiwan and stops referring to TRA as though it were an international treaty—in fact it was only a Congressional act—progress in the bilateral relations will be sluggish.

The differences are not just on substantive issues but also on style. Both sides need to devote more effort to understand how as well as what messages are being conveyed by the other side.

For example, the media made a fuss about Hu’s public admission that China has more work to be done to improve human rights. In fact, there was nothing remarkable about Hu’s admission. Most officials inside China from local to national level will freely admit that there are plenty to improve about human rights in China.

The media however did not pick up that Hu also said, “The two sides should respect each other’s value systems, beliefs and development models.” In other words, Hu was saying we know we have a human rights problem—so do you America—and we will deal with our problem our way and not according to your standards.

Hu’s speeches were full of references of China looking to be a cooperative partner with the US. He meant a partner in the full sense of the word and not a subordinated party to the US as the big brother. He was looking for mutual respect as well as mutual benefit. Obama’s team of officials seemed to have accorded that sense of mutual respect on this visit.

How Obama was regarded and treated following his visit to Beijing in November 2009 has also been subject to erroneous interpretations by the mainstream media. Because westerner's perspective was based on win-lose confrontation, they thought Obama was too soft and concessionary throughout his visit and did not win China’s respect. They credit the success of this visit to Obama being harder and more assertive. I disagree.

I believe while in Beijing, Obama positively impressed Beijing that he was an American president that China could work with as a collaborative partner. Shortly after his return, however, he announced arms sales to Taiwan which shocked Beijing and they felt betrayed. Obama was oblivious to how Beijing might react. He felt that the US had always sold arms to Taiwan and nothing has changed. China thought that if Obama had considered China a collaborative partner, then he would have taken China’s feelings into consideration and not made a unilateral announcement on a matter most sensitive to Beijing.

This incident did the most damage to the budding feeling of mutual trust that Obama had built while in Beijing. He could have avoided the set back, I believe, if while in Beijing he had privately confided to Hu that because of politics, he would have to sell some arms to Taiwan upon his return and not catch Beijing by surprise.

Mutual trust, much deeper than it exists today, will be required if the US truly wants China’s help in resolving the North Korea crisis, one of the most nettlesome foreign policy issues facing the US. As recent wiki leaks revealed, some Chinese officials have expressed the view that letting the North Korean regime collapse would save Beijing a lot of grief. China has good relations with South Korea and certainly can work with that government as a neighbor once the Korean peninsula is unified.

However, China could not possibly entertain the thought of having American troops stationed on the border of a unified Korea and China. For China to seriously contemplate letting North Korea implode, the US need to assure China that the US would not take advantage of such a collapse and put troops in the north. We would be looking at a lot of mutual trust that does not exist now.

In the past, the US practice of strategic ambiguity meant making conflicting statements and taking inconsistent positions to keep China guessing. Obviously, this did not build trust and did not alter China’s perception of US as unreliable.

To build mutual trust, both sides need to modify their style of communication as well revising their priorities offering selected concessions. The Americans need to improve their ability to receive and digest nuanced signals from China. The Chinese need to be able to communicate in a more direct and straightforward manner so as not be misunderstood.

The day when both parties can feel that there is mutual rapport is when Secretary Gates could say to President Hu upon landing in Beijing, “Gosh, Mr. President I see that I am way off on China’s stealth plane development schedule. If China has been as transparent as I had suggested in the past, I wouldn’t be so embarrassed,” followed by a jocular chuckle shared between friends.

An edited version appeared in New America Media.

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