Thaw in US-China Relations Reflects a Mature US China Policy

2010 may be only three months old, but we’ve already gone through enough China-US bilateral relations melodrama to last us at least one year. Early on, as the Obama Administration decided to complete an arms sale to Taiwan as well as meet the Dalai Lama in the White House, Sino-American ties appeared to be at their lowest point in years, a problem for which the Google flap proved most unhelpful. The tension led observers in both countries to wonder whether President Obama had the chops to deal with what is arguably Washington’s most significant bilateral relationship.

Now as the Northern Hemisphere celebrates the arrival of spring, relations between the two powers have correspondingly begun to thaw. China has finally agreed to enter into negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program after months of indecision. President Hu Jintao has decided to attend a nuclear summit in Washington later this month. The US has responded by delaying a judgment on whether or not China manipulates its currency, a move surely intended as a gesture of goodwill to Beijing.

Do these warming ties suggest an ordinary ebb and flow between the two nations, or represent a significant shift in policy? It is simply too early to answer this question. Yet Obama’s recent moves do seem to reflect a greater understanding of how China sees itself in the world, an understanding that had thus far eluded his administration.

Over the past decade or so China has positioned itself as both a major international stakeholder and as a developing country wishing to be left alone. This latter position has until recently served as the best explanation for Beijing’s solidarity with Tehran. China was willing to buy Iran’s claim that its nuclear program was a matter of national sovereignty because that claim echoes China’s own approach to foreign criticism. This—and the not so tiny matter of China’s dependence on Iranian oil—explained the Chinese reluctance to support any kind of sanctions regime against Iran.

Why then have the Chinese suddenly changed course? My sense is that the US has appealed to the other half of China’s fractured self-identity—that China is a major country and has certain responsibilities on the global stage. Beijing now seems convinced that Iran’s nuclear ambitions threaten global security and can no longer be described as a purely domestic issue. The US in turn is now willing to look the other way on the currency issue in order to gain China’s support for the more pressing matter of Iran.

It remains to be seen how the Iranian nuclear issue will play out—my own sense is that sanctions are a terrible idea and will accomplish little but to unite the Iranian people behind their government—yet by decoupling Iran from other elements of the relationship between the U.S. and China, Washington was able to win over the normally intransigent Communist Party leadership.

Of course, the currency issue isn’t just going to go away. With the visit of U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to Beijing, all eyes are now on the value of the RMB. But on a more general level the Obama Administration appears to view China less as an adversary and rival and more as a fellow mega-state full of internal contradictions and nuances that can be exploited for the common good.



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  1. yangrouchuan

    How about China maturing a big and taking on more responsibility like North Korea and Iran. What gutless panda hugging by another “writer”. Don’t get any banana pancake crumbs in your keyboard.

  2. lolz

    I have always thought Sino-US relationship to be mature and reality based.

    Fine, you get the media and the politicians from both countries who always want to use nationalism to advance their positions in local politics. Yes you also get the media from both sides who have no trouble whatsoever with letting their own bias in the way. However, if you actually look at the policies between these nations I would say that either side allows emotions or internal political pressure to get too much in the way of working together to advance both nations’ interests on issues which they can both benefit from.

    • hm

      I actually agree that they’ve been pretty mature. For the most part, they don’t seem mature because of the media especially when it comes to elections. Everyone can scream and shout all they want about how they are going to handle China but fact is, once it comes time to do work, they understand how important China is to America.

      There’s always been a mutual understanding that US needs China and China needs US. To me, the appreciation of the RMB is a way for the US to not have to rely so much on imports from China.

      I can only hope that as relations get better that US Citizens’ impression of China/Chinese people change as well. Actually… I’m waitin’ for the day when all Americans will come to see Asian Americans as… Americans.

  3. I agree that the US has appealed to China’s “benevolent” half, but this is not a recent evolution. This began explicitly with Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick (now World Bank president) in 2005 giving his now-noted speech on China as a “responsible stakeholder” — a country with such deep interests in and benefits from the global system that they had a responsibility to aid in upholding it.

    Consequently, US officials have been taking this tact in relations with Chinese counterparts for at least 4-5 years. It it the cause of the recent changes by China? Maybe. The casual timing doesn’t seem to match up!

    But, on the other hand, by changing this variable in US-China relations in 2005 (from an oppositional approach professed by Bush neo-cons like Rumsfeld), it became a positive constant in the relationship, which makes it easier for the Chinese to change policy in th future, like they’ve begun to do from time to time.

  4. Hank

    China has just carried out a clever tactical move in its relations with the US.

    China knows that Obama and the people around him are weak, naive, and gullible.

    The Obama administration is easily bluffed and the world (Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Russia, Brazil, India, Japan, and especially China) knows it.

    China manufactured the “melodrama” around the Taiwan arms sell and the Dalai Lama visit. The Americans fell into the trap.

    China huffrd and puffed and made a lot of noise and Obama and the US got frightened.

    The US immediately rushed off to China to kiss-kiss you know what.

    China is playing the US the way Yo-Yo Ma plays the cello – very well.

    I give credit to China’s leaders for protecting the short and long-range interest of their country.

    Unfortunately, the US has no such leaders.

    • Hank:

      Substantiate the following statements:

      “China manufactured the ‘melodrama’ around the Taiwan arms sell and the Dalai Lama visit. The Americans fell into the trap. China huffrd and puffed and made a lot of noise and Obama and the US got frightened.”

      • I think it’s quite a time-honoured negotiating strategy in China to feign offence and hurt in extremis as a means of guilting the other party into believing they are indebted to some degree.

        Unfortunately, this tactic does seem to work very well for Beijing. It’s high time world leaders responded to such childish bloviating with a well-practised roll of the eyes. And nothing more.

        • whichone

          …as a means of guilting the other party into believing they are indebted to some degree

          That is an interesting perspective, for most Chinese citizens, the state’s huffing and puffing are but feeble protests which the U.S. ignores regularly. I think both sides tend to overestimate the other’s action and mistakenly prescribe grand strategies when there is none. Another example of this is the issue of China’s purchase of U.S. treasury bonds: Americans are increasingly worried about China’s holding of their debt, as if there is a Mandarin behind the curtain formulating plots to ruin the U.S. financially, at the same time, most Chinese believe China is tricked into buying American bonds which the Americans could at anytime default and leave China holding a bunch of worthless papers. The truth is often much more complicated and less intriguing.

          It should be clear that China’s number one goal has been the development, and revitalization of China to become a regional power again. There is a dominating narrative of victim hood during the last one hundred years by foreign powers that has made it extremely sensitive to coercions/intervention (real or perceived) by foreign powers on China’s internal issues, which is the overriding reason why people react so strongly to U.S. arms sale to Taiwan. Moreover, one of the chief challenges of China’s development is energy security, it is vulnerable to both price volatility and security of delivery. Together these factors make Iran one of its natural allies. In this case China is trying to have its cake and eat it too – on the one hand making considerable oil deals with Iran, at the same time supporting sanctions that would thwart Iran’s nuclear ambition which certainly is not in the interest of any nuclear state.

          The reason for China’s change of position might also involve the consideration that once U.S. extracts itself from the Iraq quagmire, it will take unilateral action against Iran when international efforts fail to make headway. If Americans are willing to invade Iraq over imaginary weapons of mass destruction, certainly the real thing will invite such action as well. Years of sanction utterly crippled Iraq’s economy and paved the way for eventual invasion, present sanctions could be signal for similar contingency in the future, maybe China thinks it’s better hedge its bets so in a worst case scenario, China will have some influence to protect the oil fields it already leased from Iran.

      • Hank

        @Kevin Slaten

        Substantiate the following statements:

        “China manufactured the ‘melodrama’ around the Taiwan arms sell and the Dalai Lama visit. The Americans fell into the trap. China huffrd and puffed and made a lot of noise and Obama and the US got frightened.”

        A Beijing taxi driver told me.

        • I’ll take that response as equivalent to “I don’t really want to provide evidence for my claims. Please take them at face value.”

          • yangrouchuan

            It could very well be a Beijing taxi driver Mr. Young China Hand. Not all everyday Chinese think Taiwan is such a big issue especially when they are facing their own economic hardships.

            But you are in Taiwan, not China.

          • Even though they don’t constantly think about Taiwan, do they often think about ad hominem?

          • Hank

            @whichon

            wichon said:
            “I’ll take that response as equivalent to ‘I don’t really want to provide evidence for my claims. Please take them at face value.'”

            No. As I said, a Beijing taxi driver told me.

            My substantiation has as much validity as your comment:

            wichon said:
            “most Chinese believe China is tricked into buying American bonds which the Americans could at anytime default and leave China holding a bunch of worthless papers.”

            A Beijing call-girl also told me about Americans defaulting on the US bonds China bought.

            My sources are reliable.

          • Hank, not ‘whichone’ said the first comment. But no matter, because accuracy is too evidently unimportant to you.

  5. Hank

    @whichon

    whichon said: “Americans are increasingly worried about China’s holding of their debt, as if there is a Mandarin behind the curtain formulating plots to ruin the U.S. financially, at the same time …”

    Actually, Americans have less to worry about than Chinese. The big misconception is that the Americans came running to China asking for loans. In reality, the Chinese are running everyday with their US dollars, they get from selling goodies around the world, to the US asking the US to please keep their money for them.

    No one forces China to keep their earnings in dollars. They could “easily” convert them to euros, yen, peso, or whatever.

    China cannot bring those dollars home or else the rmb would appreciate thus making Chinese exports more expensive and having a damaging impact on China’s export sector and increasing inflation.

    China has no other place to park their loot except in the US. In a way, the US is doing China a favor “holding” their money.

    And, let’s say, for example, that China wanted to play the take-all-our-marbles-and-go-home card. If China tried to withdraw its funds in a way that would damage the US economy, the US would simply freeze China’s accounts. It has happened before.

    whichon said: “The reason for China’s change of position might also involve the consideration that once U.S. extracts itself from the Iraq quagmire, it will take unilateral action against Iran …”

    Yes, Iran is on the US radar but China knows that if/when the US wraps up its strategy in central Asia, the next main target for the US is China.

    China is playing for the long-run.

    • King Tubby

      Iran on the US radar.

      JC, could US military policy makers be so *stupid*. It is one thing for the US to get rid of Iraq’s Baathist/Sunni govt, and look at the morass that caused, or even put the frighteners on dirt poor Syria.

      Shiite Iran is a very different proposition. Highly educated with a long and illustrious history, and held together with a theology, very different from the Sunni golden caliphate drivel found in the rest of the Arab world.

      Iran seeks engagement and equality with the West plus nucleur weaponary, and this perspective cuts across classes, generations and internal political divisions. And also in spite of Admadinejad and the Revolutionary Guard.

      Equally, and to the point, if the US was not such a captive of the Zionist lobby, it would come to recognise the fact that Shiitism is the future of Islam, while Sunnism belongs to the discredited past, Bin Laden being but the worst example.

  6. Hank

    @King Tubby

    Iran has to go. Simply from a geo-political point of view. Syria, Hezbollah (in Lebanon), and Hamas (in Gaza) make it difficult for any “peace” settlement taking place among the Israelis and Palestinians. Iran is the principal backer of the above three players.

    The US cannot afford to allow the Iranians to have nuclear weapons while US conventional forces are in the area. This would wipe out any advantage the US military has against all the Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries.

    Any kind of war that would destabilize Iran or bring about a regime change would be worth the price according to the US political/military planners.

    Finally, if Iran is taken off the board, China will be strategically surrounded and her access to oil/gas will be compromised. Not good for China. Good for the US.

    • King Tubby

      I have already referred to the Shiite arc before.

      As for any peace settlement, you would be hard pressed to find anybody who actually believes in such a possibility anymore. Israels idea of settlement now consists of pushing all Palestinians into Jordan.

      I should have said it straight out: attacking Iran (god, the Saudis would love it) would be lunacy of the first order. It would unify Iranian society and you can forget about regime change (love this new mantra which just rolls off the tongue).