Zbigniew Brzezinski has high hopes for President Hu Jintao’s state visit to Washington this week. Writing in the New York Times — often a showcase for hyperbole — President Carter’s national-security adviser terms the January 19 summit “the most important top-level United States–Chinese encounter since Deng Xiaoping’s historic trip more than 30 years ago.”
Why is the meeting so consequential? Relations between Washington and Beijing of late have been frosty and testy. To stabilize ties, Brzezinski thinks the two nations’ leaders should “codify in a joint declaration the historic potential of productive American-Chinese cooperation.”
In fact, President Obama and Mr. Hu did just that at the end of their summit in Beijing in November 2009. The document, entitled U.S.-China Joint Statement, was a comprehensive set of promises to work together for the good of the international community. Yet within three weeks of the end of that meeting, relations between the two countries had soured, spoiling the promise of enduring friendship and making impossible the formation of the much-talked-about “G-2.”
The one-day summit this week, unfortunately, will not change Hu’s outlook and will not appreciably affect his behavior. This is less a prediction than a description of historical patterns. After all, this will be the eighth meeting between Obama and his Chinese counterpart. This White House has evidently not found the key to moving Beijing in the right direction. In fact, China’s foreign policy has grown overtly hostile since Obama took his oath of office.
And it is not hard to see why. From the start, administration officials failed to comprehend the Chinese as they attempted to establish a cooperative relationship. In February 2009, for instance, Secretary of State Clinton said that human rights were not central to American relations with China and she could not let them interfere with more important matters.
Secretary Clinton obviously thought she was signaling Washington’s desire to work with Chinese leaders, but that is not the way they took her words. As one Beijing-based analyst reported soon after her remarks, Chinese leaders were “ecstatic” because her comment confirmed in their minds that America “had finally succumbed to a full kowtow” to China.
It didn’t take the People’s Liberation Army long to show Secretary Clinton the fundamental error of her approach. In the following month, Chinese military aircraft and naval and civilian ships interfered with two unarmed U.S. Navy reconnaissance vessels — the Impeccable and the Victorious — in international waters in the South China and Yellow Seas.
The best that President Obama and Secretary Clinton could do when a smiling Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi visited Washington right after the incidents was to issue bland statements. Worse, in April they sent our top naval officer and a destroyer to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese navy. That show of friendship also proved to be counterproductive. In May, the Chinese again harassed the Victorious in the Yellow Sea.