During the 2008 presidential election, Hillary Clinton took a very tough line on China — arguing then that President George W. Bush should boycott the Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies because of China’s policies on Tibet and Darfur. My response to then presidential candidate Clinton was that that kind of posture was not presidential — as she would simply raise the price for cooperation from China on everything international, environmental, and economic the US was trying to achieve while at the same time doing nothing to actually solve the problems in Tibet and Darfur.
Fortunately, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave her China position a major makeover, and she moved to a much more realistic and productive position.
But US-China relations — no matter the posture that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton or Bob Gates would prefer — remain complicated and fragile.
On January 19th, President Obama will host China’s President Hu Jintao for a State Dinner at the White House. Zbigniew Brzezinski suggests in this morning’s New York Times that the visit is “the most important top-level United States-Chinese encounter since Deng Xiaoping’s historic trip more than 30 years ago.”
I agree with Brzezinski’s assessment and his argument that the outcome of the meeting needs to move significantly beyond “boilerplate.”
Brzezinski’s piece should be read in full — particularly for its quick recitation of the challenges that are currently facing the often tension-filled relationship.
But what is also clear is that Chinese leaders and citizens need to read this article as much as Americans do. Brzezinski makes the case that both sides need each other fundamentally — and while not having to ignore each other’s differences and warts, particularly Chinese human rights standards and US-style high-handed moralism and economic sector corruption, they need to enunciate a framework that commits to working together on mutual challenges.
I thought that this clip was particularly key:
The worst outcome for Asia’s long-term stability as well as for the American-Chinese relationship would be a drift into escalating reciprocal demonization. What’s more, the temptations to follow such a course are likely to grow as both countries face difficulties at home.
The pressures are real. The United States’ need for comprehensive domestic renewal, for instance, is in many respects the price of having shouldered the burdens of waging the 40-year cold war, and it is in part the price of having neglected for the last 20 years mounting evidence of its own domestic obsolescence. Our weakening infrastructure is merely a symptom of the country’s slide backward into the 20th century.
China, meanwhile, is struggling to manage an overheated economy within an inflexible political system. Some pronouncements by Chinese commentators smack of premature triumphalism regarding both China’s domestic transformation and its global role. (Those Chinese leaders who still take Marxist classics seriously might do well to re-read Stalin’s message of 1930 to the party cadres titled “Dizzy With Success,” which warned against “a spirit of vanity and conceit.”)
Brzezinski is right that America needs to acknowledge the fatigue of the Cold War and create circumstances by which it can reinvest in its domestic economy, jobs base and infrastructure — while China needs to beware the intoxication of its quick rise. (Here are some of my previous thoughts on “Beijing’s Fragile Swagger.”)
I know that the White House National Security Council team has been focused on putting together a serious China strategy and that an September 2010 visit by then Deputy (now not Deputy) National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon to Beijing laid the groundwork for a constructive pivot in what looked to be seriously deteriorating US-China relations.
Brzezinski’s call for a framework for the relationship to be embraced publicly by both leaders at this important meeting is on target.
Stay tuned to the China channel this month.
— Steve Clemons