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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

China-US ties bind and bruise

February 12, 2010

By Francesco Sisci
Asia Times
February 10, 2010

BEIJING -- China's pivotal role in trying to get
North Korea to commit to denuclearization and
return to multilateral talks on its nuclear
program could bring United States President
Barack Obama a substantial reward for the
long-standing US approach of peaceful engagement
with the North. Furthermore, it would be
Beijing's first significant political
contribution to Obama's policy of a renewed and
strengthened commitment with China.

Relations between Beijing and Washington
certainly need such a boost after a rough few
months, but there is still a long way to go.

On Friday, February 5, Communist Party
international affairs chief Wang Jiarui was on
his way to Pyongyang to see the reclusive head of
North Korea, Kim Jong-il, and to receive Kim's
denuclearization pledge - and thus guarantee the
return to six-party disarmament talks. As a sign
that this could indeed occur, at the same time,
Pyongyang announced the release of Korea-born
United States activist Robert Park, 28, held
since he crossed into the North in December.

Last year, the North also captured two American
journalists who had crossed the border and
subjected the US to a long and gruesome
bargaining process for their release, resulting
in former US President Bill Clinton paying a
visit to Pyongyang to secure their release.

Kim's pledge for denuclearization, and his
decision this week to send Kim Kye-gwan, his top
nuclear envoy, to Beijing is another positive
sign that the reclusive leader at least wants to
appear serious about resuming the stalled six-party talks.

The positive signs over North Korea coincide with
another hint of an improved mood between the US
and China following the month-long spats over
Google, US arms sales to Taiwan and the US
president's planned meeting with the Dalai Lama.
At the weekend, China's Foreign Minister Yang
Jiechi attended the Munich Security Conference in Germany for the first time.

Jin Canrong, associate dean of the People's
University's School of International Studies,
reportedly said China's presence at the
conference was probably initiated - or at least
approved - by Washington. "This is yet another
step by China to further integrate into the
international community, especially in
participating in the affairs with world major
powers,' Jin said. "Taking part in the conference
will help China to improve its relationship with
NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] and other major world powers.''

The 46-year-old gathering of top military brass,
diplomats and politicians has its roots in the
Cold War and has traditionally centered on areas
of common interest to Washington and Europe.
China's participation is significant as just a
week earlier Beijing said it interrupted military
exchanges with America in the wake of the US's announced arms sale to Taiwan.

This thaw could well be the right time to
summarize what had been going on between the two
sides since Obama left Beijing at the end of his
first official visit to China last November. A
diplomatic flurry is going on in Beijing to mend
fences and a couple of important visits are
expected in Beijing after Chinese New Year,
falling on February 14. The two sides want to
make sure Chinese President Hu Jintao will attend
a nuclear disarmament summit in America in April.

This reconstruction is very complex - it would be
worth a book, but for present consumption we shall go through it very quickly.

Obama invested much time in his first year wooing
China. He went further than any of his
predecessors in forging bilateral ties, but he
felt that the important summit in Beijing left
him with little to show when he returned home.
The Chinese did promise commitment on Iran,
Afghanistan and North Korea, but with very few
details, which is a bad sign. On the vexing
currency issue, they pledged the yuan would be
revalued to the dollar, but "in due course". That
is, it could be months or years before American
exports could get a boost through devaluation.

Furthermore, he had to tone down criticism on
human-rights issues, something for which he would
be lambasted at home. Overall, though, the summit
was a breakthrough. A whole new dimension of
bilateral ties was opened and although it was not
perfect, it was certainly a beginning. In fact,
the impression both the Americans and the Chinese
gathered was that the next test of renewed ties
would be the Copenhagen environment conference in
December, which was going to be attended by Obama
and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, both confident of success.

 From the Chinese side, people felt more
confident, perhaps even smug, as they underscored
China's continued commitment to the American
economy by purchasing US bonds when most
countries where shunning them or simply could no longer afford to buy them.

But Copenhagen was a disaster and a major loss of
face for Obama, who was banking on the results of
this meeting to show he could deliver on his
promises. He tried to make up for it: trusting
his personal negotiating skills and charisma, he
crashed a meeting where he was not expected and
where he thought he could clinch a deal with Wen,
the decision-maker of the other side.

But Wen does not have the negotiating powers of
Obama because decisions are collective in China
and any major issue has to be addressed through
consensus among the top leaders - the more
difficult the decision, the wider the consensus
required. Wen is one of these leaders, but cannot
swerve too far from a decision made by the whole
politburo. Obama didn't get anything out of the
meeting and felt bad about working with the
Chinese. The sticking point was the verification
process, to which the Chinese failed to pay
enough attention. (See Copenhagen miscalculation
Asia Times Online, December 23, 2009.)

The Chinese also felt wronged in Copenhagen.
China had gone in promising a 40% reduction of
CO2 emissions by 2020. It is a developing country
but it wanted no money in compensation for the
cuts. China felt the whole world would applaud,
but instead it was booed and cornered as if it had done something wrong.

According to those on the other side of the
Pacific, many things went wrong in the following days.

On Christmas Day, December 25, dissident Liu
Xiaobo, organizer of Charter 08, was sentenced to
11 years in prison for incitement to subversion
against the state. It was a very heavy ruling for
a crime of opinion. The ruling was severe enough
to draw world public opinion, usually prone to
slumber at this time of the year, against China.
Was China really committed to liberalization if
it sent a literature critic to prison just for
asking for constitutional reform? Was this
country a real partner of the US if it treated
its citizens not so differently from the former Evil Empire, the Soviet Union?

This feeling was further confirmed on December 28
with the announcement of the execution of
Pakistan-born British citizen Akmal Shaikh.
Nobody in the world doubted he had been smuggling
heroin into China from Central Asia, but his
family argued he had mental problems and the
court refused to admit a psychological
evaluation. Perhaps in different times, when the
US administration had not been so disgruntled
with China, when there was no famous dissident
sitting in prison, Shaikh's case wouldn't have
caused a wave. But at the end of 2009, it
engulfed the world, proving once again the
perceived brutality of the Beijing regime.

At the beginning of 2010, almost as if to set the
tone of the year, America unleashed a potential
nuclear bomb - the Google case. The giant
Internet company complained that some of its
accounts had been hacked by China. In
retaliation, it threatened it would no longer
abide by Chinese laws and filter its search
engine in China, and thus it would pull out of
the country. The issue had been simmering for
months, since Taiwan-born Lee Kaifu left as China
president of Google, and it is extremely complex.
There are three aspects that merge together and
influence each other: freedom of the Internet and
Chinese censorship, the security concern about
government-sponsored hacking and control of the
flow of personal information on the Internet, and
the commercial bargaining between Google and the Chinese government.

China felt in a difficult position, as it does
exercise censorship on the Internet, which is
very difficult to justify, and, like many other
governments, as it also keep a keen security eye
on the web for strategic reasons. Yet while other
governments also sponsor hacking or
counter-hacking initiatives, China has no
division of powers and no limits to the state
power. Therefore China's hacking, combined with
its censorship, sounds far more alarming than
hacking by a democratic government, with its
political limits and lack of censorship.

In all this, the timing is important. The issue
had been brewing for months, but the US
administration green-lighted it just at the
beginning of the year. Possibly, the combined
effect of the Copenhagen failure and the Liu and
Shaikh cases convinced Washington it might be the
right time to send a message. For certain, US
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton decided to up
the ante on Google, delivering a tough speech on
Internet freedom aimed at China on January 21,
two days after the ruinous and historical
Democratic defeat in the senate elections in
Massachusetts. That defeat certainly sent alarm
bells ringing in Obama's camp, and the cause of
liberty and freedom in Red China had been for
years a strong battle cry for the Democratic camp at home.

Against this backdrop, America announced its sale
of weapons to Taiwan. It was known the sale would
occur, but the choice of timing, in the middle of
the Google controversy, must have been made to
reinforce the message of American dissatisfaction with China.

Beijing reacted fiercely on January 30 by
threatening sanctions against the companies that
sold arms to Taiwan. Then China, trying not to
look weak, raised the bar again, and on February
2 the powerful deputy head of the United Front,
Zhu Weiqun, hinted at possible economic
repercussions if Obama were to meet the Dalai
Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.

"American leaders clearly recognize the PRC
[People's Republic of China] as the sole
legitimate government of the whole country and of
course recognize that Tibet is part of China, so
why is it holding such ties with the Dalai Lama,
the head of this false government [the Dalai Lama
is the head the Tibetan government in exile]?
This is absolutely contrary to international
rules, it is a serious damage to the basis of
political relations with the United States, and it is unreasonable."

But, according to Zhu, who spoke at a news
conference in Beijing, this is also contrary to
American interests, since the country needs to
strengthen bilateral relations due to the severe economic crisis underway.

"If under these circumstances American leaders
chose to meet the Dalai Lama, ruining cooperation
and trust between the two countries," said Zhu,
"what benefits will it have for America today facing an economic crisis?''

The threat was uncalled for and to a large extent
gratuitous and it confirmed to China's
adversaries in the world that since China was
threatening, it was a threat. The result was that
the day after that statement was made Obama had
to announce he was meeting the Dalai Lama: no
head of a country and certainly no head of a
superpower can stand being threatened.

Obama's reaction to those threats has been very
calm and measured. Zhu spoke from the perspective
of China feeling unduly pressured for over a
month, but on the other side, America had real
concerns about the partnership with China.

Obama's decision early on to initiate a
senior-level strategic dialogue with Beijing (led
by Clinton herself) represented a clear desire to
move US-China relations to a new, higher level of
cooperation on a diverse range of issues from
countering proliferation to combating climate
change. One year later, it remains unclear if
China really wants a strategic relationship with
the US or just wants to say that it has one
[emphasis added]. The Chinese have threatened
unspecified "consequences" if the arms sale go
ahead as promised (which they will) or if Obama
sees the Dalai Lama later this month (which he
will), but the reality is Beijing has already
been less than fully cooperative on a wide range
of issues from Iran (a "core interest" of the US)
to climate change (ditto) to Burma [Myanmar] and
beyond, and has also seemed to be taking a much
softer approach than warranted toward Pyongyang.

While both sides avoided the precipitous drop in
US-China relations that had characterized
previous regime changes in Washington, and the
relationship today is as good or better than last
year at this time, it seems clear that the
roller-coaster relationship is about to plunge;
how steep and how long remain unknown as both
sides see the benefit in not letting things get
too out of hand even as China tries a bit of
muscle flexing, perhaps to (unwisely) test the
young American president after a year of stock-taking.

Beijing was warned well in advance that both the
arms sale notification and the Dalai Lama visit
were in the cards and both events are completely
consistent with previous US policy and practices.
Beijing's more strident than usual response - it
has also threatened to boycott US firms involved
in the arms sale - may reflect growing Chinese
self-confidence; it could also be laying down a
marker for an even harsher response if the Obama
administration decides to move forward on the F-16 C/D sale. [1]

Facing this dissatisfaction, the US actions were
always controlled and measured. The Dalai Lama
was called a religious leader, and this together
with the arms sale was prepared and announced
well in advance. China clearly lost its temper over the Dalai Lama.

Was there Chinese hubris? It's possible China
thought it had done a lot to help America by
buying billions of credit when nobody in the
world wanted or had money to touch it. And China
possibly thought it was too big to be messed with.

Or China simply just did not see what it should
give to America to make it happy. Wasn't China
already pouring its reserves into dollar
accounts, and wasn't it saying that it was
willing for the yuan to appreciate, something
that could cost its economy dearly?

In a way, there was also another difference.
Obama needs quick results that can be shown in
the mid-term elections in November. China's
leaders, without elections, think of longer-term
solutions and then tend not to rush but drag
their feet on complex issues like Iran and North Korea.

 From all this, in the short term it seems very
likely now that China will be more cooperative
with America. However, it will be a complex year
ending, perhaps with a major environmental agreement at the Mexico City summit.

In the long term, there are many lessons to be
learned in China. Nobody is too big not to be
messed with. At the time of the Opium Wars (1839
to 1842 and 1856 to 1860) China had about
one-third of the global gross domestic product
and held about 70% of the world's silver, yet in
a matter of a few years its economy plunged and
the country was torn by revolutions and
invasions. China's economy is actually much weaker than in the 19th century.

Furthermore, China has no real, deep friends in
the world whereas America, despite all its
weakness, can command friendship and loyalty from
many countries. The US can muster global forces
around China or any country it deems a problem.
America can command global public opinion and
even influence Chinese domestic public opinion,
whereas the Chinese government sometimes has a
hard time commanding its own arena.

In a world where public ideas are exchanged very
fast and have deep influence on policies and
decisions, you have to convince others of your
opinion - it is not enough to demand them to
respect your position. In other words, on the
Dalai Lama, for instance, Beijing will have to
convince people in other countries of its
position. Here, domestic Chinese public opinion
is easily stirred by appeals to nationalism, but
abroad Beijing knows that demanding respect for
China's position sounds like it is trying to impose an order on others.

In sum, the reasons for and arguments behind the
ongoing series of controversies between the US
and China did not come across to the rest of the
world. In a parallel way, there were American
perspectives that Beijing did not fully
understand. It is a deep lack of mutual understanding.

China realized the importance of global public
opinion, but it gave the wrong answer: it gave
money to big state media organizations, CCTV, the
People's Daily and Xinhua, which were eager to
take a slice rather than to make an effort to
influence world public opinion. In fact, the big
state media outlets are by themselves
unconvincing, no matter what product they churn
out. Nobody in the world trusts state media, and
especially so if it is the voice of an
authoritarian state. In this situation, China is
totally disarmed: it has no sympathetic independent press on the global scene.

One way to improve its global image would be to
allow an independent press. This move would have
by itself immense foreign benefits. Yet
internally it could rock the boat of many finely
tuned balances of power, and thus it is untenable.

China's frustrations in communicating with the
world are bound to grow, causing more problems at home and abroad.

On the other hand, one wonders just how bad the
US-China relationship can really get. They depend
on each other for currency, trade, development
and security: breaking this reliance would cause
about the same consequences of the Cold War. But
while the Cold War was a balance of terror with
no carrot for either side and only the nightmare
of a cataclysmic nuclear stick, a breakdown in
the US-China relationship would bring greater
poverty and political chaos. Mutual reliance has
so far made everybody richer and promises to go
on doing so (although some have become richer
than others). Its rules are far more complicated
and intricate than the zero-sum game played with
the Soviets. There is too much to gain in
developing the US-China relationship and too much to lose in breaking it.

Still, certainly in the near future, spats
between the US and China are bound to increase.
Differences that earlier, from a greater
distance, were not visible have become important.
As with all ties - and especially with new ties -
the closer they bind, the more difficult they become.

1. Cossa, Ralph A PacNet Number 5. February 4,
2010 "Obama's East Asia Policy: So Far, So Good."

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