Politics & Policy

The Trouble with Beijing

Why U.S.–China tensions have increased.

Last Thursday, the White House announced that President Obama would meet with the Dalai Lama in Washington on February 18. China reacted swiftly, demanding that the event be cancelled. Earlier, Beijing had hinted that it would injure the American economy if the meeting went ahead.

Developments in Tibet, as tragic as they are, have not been considered central to U.S. relations with China since the 1970s, and many have asked why the Obama administration is angering Beijing over such a seemingly peripheral issue. The question is of special pertinence during a time of increasing tensions with the Chinese.

Not everyone believes Washington should try to manage the world with China as the “G2,” but the desire for good relations with Beijing is just about universal. Therefore, the most recent downward spiral in ties, triggered on January 12 by Google’s announcement of Chinese hacking, has caused great concern in the United States.

As a result of Beijing’s obvious irritation with Washington, some argue the Obama administration should abandon long-held American policies. Take George Gilder. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, he argues that the United States should not try to stop Beijing’s manipulation of the renminbi (its currency), should not sell arms to Taiwan, and should not assist American companies trying to resist Chinese cyberattacks. “How many enemies do we need?” Gilder asks.

The assumption behind his question is that by making concessions, Washington can make China a friend. This is exactly what the Obama administration tried to do from its first days. Last February, for instance, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously said that Chinese human-rights issues could not “interfere” with more important matters such as “the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis.” At the time, she also ranked Taiwan and Tibet as secondary issues.

The concessions, meant to create good will in the Chinese capital, had the opposite effect. Beijing’s leaders were “ecstatic” when Clinton chose not to talk about human rights. “In their eyes, America had finally succumbed to a full kowtow before the celestial emperor,” wrote Laurence Brahm, an American with close ties to Chinese leaders, at the time.

It is undoubtedly no coincidence that, a few short weeks after Mrs. Clinton’s rhetorical concession, the Chinese felt bold enough to harass two unarmed Navy reconnaissance vessels in international waters in the South China and Yellow Seas. In one incident, Chinese boats tried to separate a towed sonar array from the U.S.S. Impeccable, an act constituting a direct attack on the United States.

The president, unfortunately, did not complain about that particular act of war. Instead, his administration rushed to bolster ties with the Chinese military, as if the hostile maneuvering were merely the result of a misunderstanding. On the eve of his November summit in Beijing, Obama refused to see the Dalai Lama, and then spoke of the “strategic partnership” between the United States and China, something the Chinese had wanted to hear for a decade.

At the same time, Jeffrey Bader, his top adviser on Asia at the National Security Council, unintentionally signaled to Beijing officials that they had a veto over American policy. He called China “an essential player on the global issues that are the center of our agenda,” and then said that on none of these issues “can we succeed without China’s cooperation.” 

Again, the ruthlessly pragmatic Chinese interpreted the Obama administration’s gestures of friendship as signs of weakness, and they demanded American adherence to their aims. When the president went ahead with the Taiwan arms sales and announced the meeting with the Dalai Lama, Beijing predictably lashed back. 

The especially vituperative language from the Chinese is partially the result of their worldview, as Brahm argues, and also the product of their newfound confidence, as almost everyone notes. Nonetheless, the primary reason for China’s aggressiveness is its particular brand of Communism. Mao Zedong took the Soviet style of politics and emphasized its unstable features. By promoting internal conflict, he made Chinese Communism unusually volatile. 

His successors have tried to institutionalize politics, but they have only partially succeeded. In recent years, they managed to avoid the vicious infighting that characterized the Maoist era, but that is primarily because Deng Xiaoping was able to establish a leadership transition plan, picking not only his successor, Jiang Zemin, but also Jiang’s successor, Hu Jintao, the current supremo.

Now, however, Deng is gone, and the Communist party’s many factions must select Hu’s replacement on their own. Hu is slated to step down in 2012, and the political maneuvering is intensifying. As it does, China’s external polices are veering to extremes. In these tumultuous times, it is generally not safe for any senior Chinese official to take an accommodating position toward the United States, especially since Hu Jintao has for years set a hard line against Washington.

Hu has done so in part to court senior generals for support in his struggle with his predecessor, who was trying to linger in the limelight. Hu’s efforts have largely paid off. For example, the military appears to have backed his somewhat successful effort in the run-up to the 17th Party Congress, held in October 2007, both to sideline Jiang and to pick his own successor. It is apparent that at the massive conclave, Hu managed to obtain the assistance of the more hardline elements of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in return for ever-larger increases in defense spending and promotions for hawkish officers such as Gen. Chen Bingde, who has become chief of general staff.

Moreover, the current civilian leadership team appears to have been unnerved by the rising tide of discontent, especially the ethnic rioting in Tibet and Xinjiang. Now, more than at any time since the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, China’s Communist-party leaders rely on the troops of the PLA and the People’s Armed Police to maintain order — and to keep themselves in power. So it should come as no surprise that the generals and admirals have been able to consolidate recent gains, contributing to the more hostile edge to Chinese pronouncements. 

The implications of the shifting of forces inside Beijing are, obviously, significant. Optimistic Chinese watchers — never in short supply in the West — have tended to ignore the internal dynamics of the ruling group, preferring instead to minimize the seriousness of Chinese behavior or to make excuses for it.

Fareed Zakaria, for instance, chalks up China’s arrogance to “growing pains” and refers to ongoing tensions as a “squall,” implying that the hostility will soon pass. The problem, however, is that Beijing’s recent truculence is fundamentally the result of Chinese Communism’s systemic instability and other regime flaws. So President Obama should understand that China, under one-party-but-many-faction rule, is not just another state. No matter how conciliatory he tries to be, Beijing will continue to pose a challenge of the first order to the United States.

– Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. He writes a weekly column at Forbes.com.

Gordon G. ChangMr. Chang is the author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World. He lived and worked in China and Hong Kong for almost two decades.

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