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Will U.S.-China Talks Reset Tone in a Competitive Relationship?

January 19, 2011 at 5:09 PM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown examines the undertones of the meetings between Presidents Hu and Obama with Susan Shirk of the University of California's Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, George Washington University's David Shambaugh and Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some views now on today’s meeting and the state of play between the two countries. Susan Shirk was deputy assistant secretary of state for China policy in the Clinton administration. She’s now director of the University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation. Minxin Pei is professor of government and director of international and strategic studies at Claremont McKenna College. And David Shambaugh is director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University. He just returned from a 14-month research sabbatical in China.

Susan Shirk, I will start with you first. What — what, if anything, jumps out at you about today’s meeting?

SUSAN SHIRK, director, Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, University of California: Well, the two presidents definitely tried to accentuate the positive.

From the U.S. side, I think we’re pretty satisfied with the joint statement and what the Chinese said about North Korea. For the first time, they did express concern about the uranium enrichment program in North Korea. They agreed that North-South dialogue should occur basically before the six-party talks and that concrete steps need to be taken on denuclearization. I think that’s probably the part of the joint statement that the U.S. side was the most satisfied with.

On the other hand, when it comes to this high-level military dialogue that Secretary Gates was pressing for last week in Beijing, and they said, well, let’s think about it, we thought he — that President Hu might be coming with that, and he was still unwilling to commit to that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Minxin Pei, is this important for the specific issues, some of which we just heard, or — or is it about trying to reset a larger problem between these two countries?

MINXIN PEI, director of international and strategic studies, Claremont McKenna College: I think it’s both. This meeting did reset the tone of the relationship. For the last year, the relationship has been on a downward spiral. And this meeting has put a stop to that.

I also want to add three additional observations about the joint statement. I think, on the China side, for the first time as I recall, it positively affirms America’s role in East Asia, as Pacific — Asian-Pacific nations, contributes to regional security and prosperity. This is a very important statement.

And, also, the statement says that China’s new leader, the leader in waiting, Vice President Xi Jinping, will be visiting the U.S. And that’s going to be an important visit even by itself. And, lastly, China promises that it will not link so-called its innovation policy with government procurement. And that addresses an American concern.

JEFFREY BROWN: David Shambaugh, you were just — you were shaking your head at the first point that he was saying about the — go ahead.

DAVID SHAMBAUGH, director, China Policy Program, George Washington University: Well, the statement has reference to the United States’ role in maintaining peace, stability and security in East Asia. That’s welcome.

But Minxin is not quite right. The Chinese have said that before, including during the Clinton administration. They don’t say it often, because it’s code word for the American alliance system and military presence in Asia in, which they are highly ambivalent about, at best.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, now, you wrote an op-ed piece the other day in which you referred to — quote — “a cumulative crisis brewing in the relationship over the past year.”

What’s — what’s behind that, and how serious do you see it?

DAVID SHAMBAUGH: Well, the crisis is — has been cumulative. It started with President Obama’s state visit to China in November 2009. And almost as soon as he got on the airplane to leave, things started to unravel and go wrong, as Minxin has just noted.

There hasn’t been any single cause. It’s been a multiple — multiple causes, through the economic domain, the strategic domain, human rights, politics and global diplomacy. So, that’s why I called it a cumulative crisis. It’s not like crises we have had in the U.S.-China relationship before, the Belgrade bombing when Susan was in office, or the EP-3 incident or Tiananmen. But it’s as serious, I think, perhaps more serious, over the last year.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, how — how — help people under — how should the U.S. — how does the U.S. and should the U.S. look at China today? We hear — we hear President Obama referring to China’s rise. But we also hear about — people talk about an insecure China.

How do you see it?

SUSAN SHIRK: Well, you know, China did recover first from the global financial crisis. And, because of that, many news stories say China’s more assertive now because it’s got this new confidence.

But, actually, internally, there’s a tremendous insecurity that its leaders feel, because they see domestic threats everywhere. They’re very worried that a Communist Party cannot continue to rule this very — very dynamic and open market economy.

So, they react. Sometimes, they’re hyper-responsive to public opinion, as in the case of anti-foreign nationalism. And they — now there’s a public demand for a tougher rhetorical stance toward the United States, toward China’s neighbors. And I think that’s what this new assertiveness is in part all about.

JEFFREY BROWN: Minxin Pei, what would you add to that? What — what — how should we look at China today?

MINXIN PEI: Well, I essentially agree with Susan’s assessment.

China really behaves like somebody with a split personality. It is growing, it’s getting — getting strong, but, at the same time, it is beset with all kinds of domestic problems and challenges. And, above all, the Chinese Communist Party’s power is not secure. It doesn’t have a full legitimacy base. And that worries the leadership most of all.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mentioned, David Shambaugh, you — you just returned from 14 months there. What did you take from that, being there?

DAVID SHAMBAUGH: Well, one of the big takeaways is precisely what Susan and Minxin has just said, the insecurity of the party.

I went over there, having written a book, in fact, about the Chinese Communist Party in which I argue that they were increasingly secure and moving ahead with various reforms. But those reforms have stalled, I would say, over the last year-and-a-half to two years, and they are acting as has just been described, in a very insecure way on many fronts.

The bravado we see from them overseas is the kind of contradiction there, but it’s — many psychologists would tell you an insecure person sometimes overcompensates. And that’s what I think we’re seeing externally and internally.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, when you flip it, does China — do important people in China look at the U.S. as in decline, as us getting weaker? And does that explain some of the more belligerent behavior that some people see?

SUSAN SHIRK: Well, some people in China do, just as many people in America do, and in other countries, too. If you look at those Pew surveys that came out recently, you will see that there’s a massive misperception that China is already the most powerful economy in the world and that the U.S. is on decline.

Now, I don’t think President Hu believes that. And I don’t believe — think that a lot of the leaders in China believe that. But some of the folks in the military, in the security apparatus, the propaganda apparatus, they probably do believe that and think that the time has come for China to flex its muscles.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Minxin Pei, what — what now? You know, you have Obama — people in the Obama administration seem to acknowledge that, two years ago, when they came in, they were a little too accommodating.

What should the posture be — oh, we have just lost Minxin Pei. OK. We’ll hope to get him back.

Well, David — David, let me come to you on that. What should the posture be for the American government now?

DAVID SHAMBAUGH: I think they set a pretty — a better tone today in the summit and even in the week leading up to the summit, actually, the speeches that Secretaries Clinton, Locke, Gates and Geithner gave over the last week.

You have to look at this cumulatively over the last week, not just the events in the White House today. It’s a more realistic tone than was set at the last summit in Beijing. There, the expectations — the American expectations, I think, were too high, and they were dashed almost immediately.

Today, I get a greater sobriety. And President Obama’s use of the word competition, for example, we have a competitive and a cooperative relationship, that’s a bit more realistic, I think, and that will send signals to the Chinese side, send signals to the American public and to the international media, in a way, to report the relationship.

JEFFREY BROWN: I think, Minxin Pei, you’re back with us. I don’t know if you heard the question, but it was about, what should — what should the American posture be now?


JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, you heard President Obama, for example, going out of his way early on today to bring up the human rights issues.

MINXIN PEI: I think the policy at the moment is the right policy, because it strikes the right balance. On the one hand, you want to give the Chinese leader respect, the right protocol. That’s why it’s called a state visit and the state dinner, and welcoming ceremony and so forth.

But, at the same time, you want to show American principles and interests and defend them vigorously. At the moment, I think it is absolutely the realist and right policy.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Susan Shirk, it’s also worth noting that President Hu Jintao, this is his farewell visit, right?

SUSAN SHIRK: It is, because he’s a lame-duck, two years before the transition that’s going to occur at the next party congress in 2012.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what do we need to know about what’s behind him in terms of Chinese politics or Chinese power?

SUSAN SHIRK: Well, you know, China is not ruled by Hu Jintao. China is ruled by this collective group of nine men in the Standing Committee of the Communist Party Politburo.

Xi Jinping has been chosen to be the successor, but it’s a system now that’s first among equals. And, actually, this weak collective rule, we think — David and I were speaking before we came on — is really responsible for a lot of the problems we are seeing, because we have got weak collective leadership, poor coordination. And a lot of these bureaucratic interests are going off on their own, like the military, the security apparatus or the propaganda apparatus.

JEFFREY BROWN: So — so, briefly, you expect this period to continue, this kind of up and down?

DAVID SHAMBAUGH: Oh, I would argue Hu Jintao has been a lame duck ever since he came into office. He has never actually consolidated his power and extended it over the security apparatus, over the military, over these large state-owned enterprises.

So, we’re going now into the transition to his successor. This is a period when these bureaucratic interests are going to assert themselves even more. His successor is rather untested. It’s going to be probably two years before he begins to consolidate his position.

So, we, as Americans and the rest of the world, need to realize the fluidity, domestically, that we’re dealing with here.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, David Shambaugh, Susan Shirk and Minxin Pei, thank you all very much.

SUSAN SHIRK: Thank you.