Monday, 7 March 2011

January’s US-China Summit

The US print media and US-China relations, during President Hu’s State Visit


With Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit to Washington, the relationship between America and China has been the subject of intense media scrutiny. This flurry of coverage provides an ideal opportunity to examine this relationship, and also to explore the concerns and conflicts in the media’s continued impression of China. It would appear that the American media have yet to move beyond the events of Tiananmen. This is partly the result of Congressional long-memories (making China a surprising anomaly in Congressional discourse), but also because many of the same issues resonate throughout US-China relations: China’s approach to human rights remains inimical to America’s professed values, economic relations are increasing every year, trade disputes remain, and security concerns – whether Taiwan-related or concerning the implications of China’s military build-up – are growing.

There remains a distrust of Beijing’s policies and motives. Hannah Beech has described Chinese diplomacy as showing two faces to the world: one is “suave and cosmopolitan”, while the other is “assertive and even arrogant, demanding global respect while bridling at any international criticism with the petulance of a teenager.”[1] It is with this in mind, and the common-place complaints about China’s mercantilist trade practices, and human rights abuses, that Obama and his team had to operate during the State visit.

The week leading up to the visit saw three prominent Obama administration officials publicly criticise China with regards to their various bureaucratic ‘turfs’: defence, economics, and human rights – the three cornerstone issues in the US-China relationship. Last week in Beijing, Defence Secretary Robert Gates pledged to increase US military investment in the Pacific and procurement of weapons, jet fighters and other weapons technology, in response to China's growing military power and arms build-up. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner delivered a speech in Washington in which he called on China to open its domestic market to American products and to let the yuan appreciate. And finally, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticised China on its human rights record (something she has done before) and also the continued incarceration of Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. These three statements apparently signalled the administration’s intention to confront China on the issues that are most important to the relationship. However, in all likelihood these statements made President Hu resistant to substantive negotiation or concessions on these issues. To have three Cabinet Secretaries blast China on three sensitive and important issues is unlikely to have had much of an affect; it is merely a continuation of the pageantry of contemporary US-China relations. For this summit, Obama “had to get concrete concessions from Hu to register a success, while all Hu had to do was smile without giving in and make sure that mutual relations didn’t deteriorate,” writes Leslie Gelb for the Daily Beast. Obama was not able to get any concrete concessions from Hu, and this will not surprise or quieten Americans who think Obama is soft on foreign dictators.

In Thomas Donnelly’s words, the summit was perfunctory and unimpressive: “The Chinese ‘paramount leader’ agreed to buy a few airplanes, agreed to talk a bit about human rights (with Chinese characteristics), and got some good press back home. All that our China hands could say was that the trip was a welcome punctuation to the declining relations of the past year.”[2]

However, that Hu’s visit was a non-event is actually “just as well”, as Donnelly believes the post-Cold War policy of ‘engagement’ has “run out of steam”:

“China’s mercantilist trade and financial practices prevent even economic engagement from fulfilling its open-markets promise. Nor has engagement made for more open Chinese politics. Beijing remains repressive. China’s expanding middle class is more often aggressively nationalistic than globally cosmopolitan.”

China has approached Obama’s presidency in a “puzzling manner”, writes Fareed Zakaria in TIME. Despite Obama’s talk of his belief in the “supreme importance” of the US-China economic and strategic relationship, and also his symbolically accommodating trip to China in 2009, Beijing has been “distinctly combative”, over-reacting to almost every utterance and event from the Obama administration – including routine and predictable issues that have arisen in almost every recent administration since Carter (such as arms sales to Taiwan, and meeting with the Dalai Lama).



The US-China economic relationship is fraught with little-understood issues like currency revaluation, intellectual property rights, and China’s internal market structure and ‘rules’. Despite talking tough on the economy, Obama’s team didn’t exactly manage a win. The negotiating team was only able to extract about $45 billion in new contracts to buy American products and services; for example, more civilian airliners from Boeing (which seems to always result from these summits, unless China feels slighted, at which point Airbus gets some new contracts). While welcome, these types of deals are usually negotiated well before these summits begin, and merely offer a nice economic boost narrative for both nations’ leaders.

Irwin Stelzer of The Weekly Standard sees China’s economic policies as sinister and dangerous: “The Communist regime sees trade policy as merely one strategic weapon in a war aimed at overtaking the United States as the world’s preeminent economic and military power.”[3] Stelzer continues, arguing that “their vaults... stuffed with an even larger hoard of American IOUs” will be enough to give Beijing an “important influence” over American foreign policy.

In 2010, Secretary Clinton asked then-Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, “How do you deal toughly with your banker?” She was expressing a common concern in American policy circles that China might retaliate to US toughness by dumping its dollar-denominated bonds on the market, driving down their value and raising interest rates. This drastic move, Stelzer warns, “would bring our economic recovery to a screeching halt – or worse. Yes, the value of China’s dollar-denominated assets would decline, but if a broader geopolitical objective were served, that would merely be a cost to include in the military budget.”

Security, The PLA & the “China Threat”

On security issues, such as China’s assertions of sovereignty over regions of the South China Sea (“aggressive claims”, in Beech’s words), “it was Hu who was doing the asking”, and Obama who didn’t budge: “For all China’s increased military spending and technological advances, it remains far behind America in military punch,” writes Leslie Gelb. With regards to the aforementioned arms sales to Taiwan, which Beijing insists must be stopped because Taiwan is part of China, Obama made it clear that Washington will continue to assure Taiwan’s safety and peaceful independence. The military balance still favours the US, but this does not stop China’s military modernisation and build-up from being a popular topic with the news media. At the time of the summit, The Economist painted a bleak picture of US-China relations in this context:

“Recent revelations about its military programmes are the latest Chinese moves to have unsettled the world. Strip the charm from Chinese diplomacy and only the offensive is left. Sino-American relations are at their lowest ebb since a Chinese fighter collided with an American EP-3 spyplane a decade ago.”

Both Fareed Zakaria and Hannah Beech refer to China’s military modernisation in TIME magazine. Both authors imply that the PLA is operating at odds with or without permission and advice from the CCP leadership; and as a result is a growing threat. At the same time, they both ignore similar actions by American institutions. For example, Zakaria writes: “The Chinese military, perhaps because of [increased] budgets but also its ideological and strategic mind-set, seems to consider the U.S. as China’s sworn enemy and to believe that a conflict between Beijing and Washington is inevitable.” However, Zakaria fails to mention that US Quadrennial Defence Reports have frequently pointed to China as the only nation likely to present a threat to US security. Donnelly also attributes hostile motives to PLA strategy, stating that for almost two decades, the PLA has “shifted its focus from repelling a Soviet invasion and controlling domestic unrest to the sole problem of defeating U.S. forces in East Asia. This has been a strategic surprise to which no American administration has appropriately responded.”[4]

It is in the best interests of both countries to maintain a good working relationship, so anything that looks like it might move the two nations to battle-stations will likely be met will full diplomatic efforts on both sides to ward off conflict. The bilateral relationship is mutually beneficial at present, despite increased concerns over a gradual diversification in China’s basket of foreign currency reserves.

There is another comparison that can be easily drawn between America and China, and that is the rhetoric of generals and other military leaders. A few of China’s generals have been caught on the record giving inflammatory and bellicose statements. But then, so did Donald Rumsfeld. Chinese Minister of Defence Liang Guanglie said, “We may be living in peaceful times... but we can never forget war, never send the horses south or put the bayonets and guns away.”[5] Is this so different to the ever-increasing-in-size US defence budget, and the QDR references to China?

Of course, the most worrying thing under discussion the weeks surrounding the summit was President Hu’s apparent ignorance of the Chinese air force’s stealth fighter test. This plays into American fears about CCP opacity, and how it is all-too-frequently difficult to ascertain what the Chinese leadership is actually thinking. According to a September 2010 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute report, “Authority over foreign policy is fractured... Foreigners must take into account multiple agencies that have a stake or say in any given decision.” In addition, Beech reports, at the Copenhagen Climate Change summit in 2009, “Foreigners dealing with the Chinese complained they didn’t know who was calling the shots.”[6]

China’s military modernisation has been ringing alarm bells for years among American defence hawks, and when put in the context of Obama’s and Gates’s calls for reducing waste in the Defence Budget, we naturally see the tone devolve into one favouring a China Threat, with the elimination of weapons programs setting a “worrisome pattern”, when “our biggest foreign competitor, China, is in the midst of a rapid arms build-up that includes fielding a stealth fighter much faster than previously predicted and a new ballistic missile dubbed a ‘carrier killer’ for its ability to target American aircraft carriers.”[7]

In terms of rhetoric, however, there are other things to take into account; in particular, the intended audience of certain speeches and statements. In light of the globalised media economy and spread of internet access, one could argue that this is irrelevant, and many have done so. However, both Chinese and American media outlets and politicians cater speeches and content for domestic audiences, and sometimes a separate version (with different nuances) for foreign audiences. “With Communism hardly able to serve as a guiding force anymore,” Beech writes, “the party has used nationalism as a tool to rally the Chinese people.” The “jingoistic drumbeat” of China’s official media is not designed nor intended for foreign audiences, “but rather a nationalistic crowd back home.” This is no different to American political practice. Republicans and FOX commentators call for muscular foreign policies, sneer at diplomatic options as weak and the purview of the effete, “mommy” Democratic Party, while MSNBC and liberal media outlets call for harsh sanctions over Chinese human rights record. And yet, both Republican and Democratic presidents present a very different face to Chinese dignitaries and officials, almost conciliatory in their deference.



The ‘two faces of Chinese diplomacy’ have had a mixed response all over the world. Home and overseas audiences want and need different things, and the media provides images of events accordingly, reflecting these different needs. This is no different to US politicians’ tendencies to lambast China for a domestic audience, while at the same time courting them for business opportunities and to convince them to continue buying T-Bills.

When it comes to the economic and security ‘threats’ that many commentators and scholars have written about, Jonah Goldberg offers a way of looking at the gloomy situation in a ‘half-glass-full’ way: “China is certainly less of a military threat to the United States than the Soviet Union was. It’s more of an economic challenger, but that's a good problem to have, right? Currency wars are better than nuclear ones.”[8]

American media still operates with the same assumptions and biases since normalization, and certainly since Tiananmen. The standard tropes remain – maritime squabbles, North Korea, Taiwan, Tibet, human rights, bilateral trade. If it was any other country, this record would make the country a pariah, but China’s economic clout allows it to be stubborn and immovable. It is certainly difficult for Westerners to separate liberal values from reportage on China (something that shouldn’t be done); the shrillness of some articles can overwhelm contemporary issues, especially when we know that Chinese leaders will become implacable in the face of foreign criticism. This is particularly the case when some journalists hang on to the rhetoric and language of the Reagan era:

“China is still governed by a fundamentally evil system. Hu has blood on his hands — he ordered the slaughter of hundreds of unarmed Tibetan protestors in 1989. But it’s less evil than when it kept a billion people in poverty and killed 65 million of its own citizens. That’s progress.”

This statement, by Goldberg, ticks a number of boxes when it comes to American reporting on China – any excuse to mention Tibet (whether relevant or not), and echoes of Reagan’s “Evil Empire” rhetoric, only transferring the characterisation from the Soviet Union to China. Regardless of what one may or may not think about their system, the simple realities of international relations – and certainly with regards to China’s place in it – are that immediate concerns sometimes supersede long-term problems.

While throwbacks to the Cold War limit conservative commentators and China watchers, Donnelly argues that the “engagement versus containment” framework employed most frequently today “imprisons American policy in a false dichotomy”: “the fact is that a security strategy based upon military deterrence – i.e., an improved U.S. military posture, revitalized alliances, and strategic partnerships – would not detract from diplomacy, trade, or other forms of exchange with China.” This is an important consideration for those who still see US-China relations as zero-sum.

It is perhaps the fault of the West – America and multi-national corporations in particular – who can be blamed for China’s conduct on the international stage. Businesses’ obsession with the China Market, the tactics they pursued to effectively give China anything it asked for – from developing the infrastructure China needed (see Karabell’s Superfusion) to lobbying Congress to ease restrictions and promote what James Mann has dubbed “The China Fantasy” – while simultaneously allowing everything unsavoury about the Chinese regime and its politics (internal and external) to be swept under the rug, it is no wonder that Beijing is acting increasingly assertive: the West has given the Chinese leadership the impression that it will do nothing to China if it rocks the boat. America has mortgaged itself for cheaper Chinese-made products and what was believed to be an eternal line of credit.

China is diversifying its foreign currency holdings, certainly and logically, but this does not spell the imminent demise of America. What does threaten the relationship, however, is the myopic impression that it is only China that needs to change its ways to solve mutual problems. With the American political system operating as it does, we will not hear anything beyond the eternal argument of “engagement or containment” – when each can be applied to different issues simultaneously. With the American media apparently still set on approaching the US-China relationship with a critical eye, it will likely continue to be reported in terms of competition, rather than cooperation and mutual benefit.

[1] Beech, Hannah. “Split Personality” (TIME, January 24th 2011), p.28

[2] Donnelly, Thomas. “Hu Cares?” (The Weekly Standard, January 31st 2011), p.9

[3] Stelzer, Irwin M. “Our Broken China Policy” (The Weekly Standard, January 17th 2011), p.26

[4] Donnelly (Jan.31st, 2011), p.9

[5] Quoted in Beech (Jan.24th, 2011), p.31

[6] Beech (Jan.24th, 2011), p.31

[7] Boot, Max. “A Farewell to Arms” (The Weekly Standard, January 17th 2011), pp.8-9

[8] Goldberg, Jonah. “China and the US: One Superpower or Two?” (Los Angeles Times, January 18th 2011)

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