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Beijing's Fragile Swagger

July 25, 2010

The US should be more ready to stand its ground
with China. It won’t get any respect in Beijing for trying to appease it.
By Steven Clemons
The Diplomat
July 24, 2010

The Chinese experience is that the US regularly
blinks first--and works harder for Chinese
attention than China is willing to work for US
attention. ... They want a stronger United
States, one with vision and one that’s willing to
continue to set the terms of the global order that China is prospering in.

Confucius said ‘The superior man is firm in the
right way, and not merely firm.’ From a Chinese
perspective, the same can probably be said about other nations.

When Hillary Clinton was running for the US
presidency, she encouraged then President George
W. Bush to boycott the opening ceremony of the
Beijing Olympics to signal US frustration over
China’s treatment of Tibet and lack of cooperation on Sudan.

Her posture, reversed since she became Secretary
of State, was remarkably un-presidential as any
serious geopolitical analyst would have noted
that the United States needed China’s support on
virtually every one of its major international
objectives -- from redirecting Iran’s nuclear
aspirations to climate change to stabilizing a
global financial system near meltdown.

Indeed, gratuitous gut punches simply raise the
cost of China’s support, underscoring the fact
that Clinton’s approach in the summer of 2008 was
simply the wrong way to be ‘firm.’

But there’s also another side to China, and it’s
one that doesn’t respect ‘desperate’ friendship,
grovelling or appeasement. It’s this element to
Chinese foreign policymaking that means the
United States can’t simply acquiesce to all of
China’s demands and expect China to respond in kind.

After just a short time in Beijing recently, with
an unscripted schedule and no government
handlers, the most significant gap in attitudes
that I’ve found between average Chinese up to
senior state officials on the one hand, and
Washington’s Mandarins on the other, is a
different calculation about political firmness and resolve.

Those leading the Chinese government, for the
most part, put a premium on opaqueness and
disdain transparency. Cautiousness is rewarded;
risk-taking often punished. But perhaps most
importantly, while these architects of China’s
rise respect and respond to power, they view
solicitousness and vacillation as weakness.

The implications of this power dynamic in Chinese
calculations are vital for US-China relations. In
other words, a United States that dithers on the
release of a report on currency manipulation, or
that offers a US-China Strategic and Economic
Dialogue that buries all controversial issues and
offers only what China wants to hear (as happened
in July 2009), or that allows China to repeatedly
veto key military exercises in the seas of
Northeast Asia is, put simply, a weak United States.

Indeed, China has watched Israel -- a client
state of the United States -- discipline the
White House. No matter what the realities are
behind the scenes, the publics in the US, Israel
and around the world see an Obama presidency that
seems to need positive relations with Israel more
than Israel needs or wants US presidential
affection. Meanwhile, China sees America’s
military capacity overstretched in Afghanistan
and Iraq and notes US allies behaving as if they
can’t count on the United States for the same
level of support they once could. This has
contributed to a situation whereby many of these
same allies are now courting China for support,
investment and strategic dialogue as they perceive a United States in decline

The irony of all of this is that China doesn’t
want US power to fall away rapidly -- it wants
the United States to remain a vital, global force
with which China has deep structural relations.

The reason? China wants to free-ride on US global
power because it fears its own internal
fragility. China knows that it’s not ready to
carry the burden of global stability and isn’t
ready to position itself as a provider of global
public goods while it’s still in a mode of highly
concentrated neo-mercantilist self interest.

China fears the Obama administration is weak,
very weak -- and that the world will keep
provoking the United States to see where its
power begins and ends. In fact, China is doing
the same thing -- testing US resolve, including
rejecting six times US-Republic of Korea joint
military exercises that will now go on despite
Chinese objections (which they have themselves recently softened).

China has also rebuked the Obama administration
for arranging a meeting with the Dalai Lama and
protested vehemently over arms sales to Taiwan, a
move that prompted it to suspend
military-to-military exchanges and block a trip
to China planned by Defense Secretary Gates. In
the words of both a senior US interlocutor with
the Chinese government and a senior Chinese
official, ‘China is poking the US to see how America will respond.’

The impression in Beijing is that the United
States is desperate for China’s support and fears
upending a relationship it badly needs. The
reality, according to both Chinese and informed
foreign expatriate voices here is that while
China will escalate to near breaking point a
dispute of some sort, ultimately China will
respect resolve and won’t break the compact of cooperation.

The Chinese experience is that the US regularly
blinks first -- and works harder for Chinese
attention than China is willing to work for US
attention. This gives it an edge in the
Sino-American relationship that many in the
Chinese government actually aren’t particularly
comfortable with. They want a stronger United
States, one with vision and one that’s willing to
continue to set the terms of the global order that China is prospering in.

Unfortunately, what they see instead is a
desperate country that swings between appeasement
of China’s geoeconomic and geopolitical appetite
on one side, and fear of China and talk about
containing or punishing or imposing surcharges on it on the other.

It’s ironic then that these two extremes, which
China believes demonstrate the United States is
forfeiting its dominance in the international
system, validate China’s sense of importance and
evolving swagger, one which many in Beijing
actually believe is a ‘fragile swagger’ that’s not yet ready for primetime.
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