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.
The Obama administration followed this series of missteps with an even more significant one. On the eve of the president’s November 2009 trip to Beijing, Jeffrey Bader, the top Asia official on the National Security Council, publicly said the United States could not solve any of the world’s great problems without China’s cooperation.
Bader thus essentially gave Beijing veto power over American foreign policy, and the ruthlessly pragmatic Chinese immediately took advantage of it. Obama’s trip to China — literally marked by bows to officials high and low in Shanghai and Beijing — turned out to be a debacle. Worse, it marked the beginning of a period of Chinese belligerence and hostility that continues to this day. During this period, not only have China’s civilian leaders openly worked to undermine American interests, but its flag officers and senior colonels publicly talked about waging war on the United States.
Paradoxically, the administration’s gross miscalculations may have created an unintended dynamic that could be beneficial for the United States. The president’s supine behavior persuaded Hu Jintao that America was in terminal decline and that its leaders could be disregarded, offended, or humiliated as the occasion required. Yet even as Hu basked in his moment of hubris, he pursued policies that surprised and terrified neighboring nations and motivated them to seek the protection of the only guarantor of peace in East and South Asia, the United States. The question remains: Is America ready to lead again?
There is an urgent need for Washington’s leadership. In recent months, Chinese supremos have continued their belligerent actions, such as intruding into their neighbors’ territorial waters and ramming other nations’ ships, but they have been speaking in slightly less arrogant tones. As a result of this scaling down of rhetoric, the China optimists who dominate Washington’s Beijing-watching community believe the Chinese leadership has been chastened and is now willing to work with the Obama administration.
To the contrary: As we have seen during the last two years, the almost complete failure of Washington’s approach suggests the need for a reassessment of the fundamental assumptions that have underpinned our China policies since the Nixon years.
Nixon, in what is now universally regarded as a foreign-policy triumph, formed an informal alliance with Beijing against the then-greater threat from Moscow. When the Soviet Union was dissolved on Christmas Day 1991, we continued to “engage” the Chinese even though the original reason for doing so no longer existed.
It was an historic gamble on liberalization. Among other things, we facilitated China’s entry into the system of global commerce. Trade with China, the theory went, would lead to demands by the Chinese people for free markets and representative governance. That could still happen, of course, but if it does, it will only be in the distant future. In the meantime, China’s rulers are using predatory trade tactics to strengthen their one-party state so as to more effectively pursue obstructive policies.
In the last few years, for instance, a strengthened Beijing has supplied small arms to the insurgents in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan, transferred materials and equipment to Iran for its nuclear-weapons program, helped North Korea deliver missiles to Pakistan and Iran, supplied arms for use in Darfur, lasered American satellites to blind them, supported the biggest nuclear black-market ring in history, conducted a global campaign of industrial espionage, and launched innumerable cyberattacks against the Pentagon and American civilian targets.
And what has been America’s response? To wait and hope that Beijing’s leaders will start to calculate their interests the same way we do. We have subordinated critical foreign-policy goals, such as stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and promoting democratic institutions, to the objective of making China a “responsible stakeholder.”
As we have done so, we have avoided criticizing the Chinese rulers, and this hesitancy has prevented us from having honest conversations about their conduct. When President Obama said China and the United States had “a positive, constructive, and comprehensive relationship” — as he did during the 2009 Beijing summit — he was describing a China he wanted to see. The Chinese leaders did not bask in the false praise and seek to live up to it — Obama’s ultimate goal. Instead they saw America flinch, and they took that as a green light for continuing hostile behavior.
The hope of the current administration, like the ones before it, is that consultations will resolve increasingly contentious issues. That is why, despite everything, President Obama will be laying it on thick when Hu Jintao arrives in Washington later today. Unfortunately, dialogue at the White House will make problems worse. Chinese leaders react only to pressure, such as the types they apply on others, and to punishment, as they mete out when they can. As the former prime minister of Australia Kevin Rudd has said, China’s foreign policy is rooted in the “brutal realist” school. Other nations play a losing game when they try to appeal to the better instincts of the hardnosed crew in Beijing.
Perhaps we can excuse Obama and his three predecessors for their misguided China policies. Almost every expert in Washington assured them that the Chinese would respond positively to generous American initiatives. Yet Beijing has only become more belligerent over time. Eventually, reality must intrude on diplomatic dreams.
Our diplomats and China watchers maintain there is no alternative to the policy of engagement we have been pursuing. That, of course, is the same thing proponents of détente told Ronald Reagan about dealing with the Soviet Union in 1981. Much to their consternation, he ignored them.
Reagan did not prevail over the Soviet Union — another hostile state — by engaging Brezhnev, Andropov, or Chernenko. He worked actively to defeat them. Only when Gorbachev knew he was beaten did peaceful cooperation become possible.
It may be asking too much of President Obama to take a lesson from the Gipper, but confrontation is the one approach we have not tried with Beijing since the 1970s. It may, however, be the only one that can work.