Nothing spins up journalists, pundits and partisans in the United States more than a presidential election or a visit from a Chinese president. Both are forthcoming. The election incites a “silly season” where generally bombastic, nonsensical, often dogmatic tripe gets a candidate on Sunday talk shows and rebroadcast in media echo chambers whereas a substantive, well-reasoned policy speech relegates a candidate to obscurity. Mix that environment with a visit from the Chinese president, and Chicken Little sensationalism substitutes for the importance and prudent consideration of what that visit might yield. Republican president candidates have recently referenced China as “the enemy,” called for cancellation of President Xi Jinping’s visit, and Governor Scott Walker proclaimed he would “take Xi to the woodshed.”
Chicken Little sensationalism substitutes for prudent policy analysis because just as pundits and partisans have now decided to equate diplomacy with appeasement regarding Iran, prudence is similarly equated to cowardice or naïveté regarding China. The battle cry is to strong arm China into seeing things the American way. Whereas we may still see ourselves as the benevolent hegemon, other parts of the world see the United States as vacillating between trying to hang onto its now-gone unipolar moment, through the use of bullying tactics, and dithering due to domestic politics. The bilateral relationship between the U.S. and China is important and complex, politically, economically and militarily. It is perhaps the most important current bilateral geostrategic relationship. Dialogue between the countries is not just desired but essential.
The United States has four basic approaches in its foreign policy toolbox: diplomatic, informational, military, and economic. It is imprudent to remove any one of those as an option as it handicaps the United States in achieving its goals. For those skeptical of the value of prudence, being wise in practical affairs, it is perhaps useful to remember that prudence was considered George Washington’s strongest character feature. It is unlikely that either the United States or China will achieve all of its goals during this visit, as some are in direct opposition. But it is in the national interest of the United States to attempt to identify and come to agreement on issues of shared interest. It is the prudent policy approach.
The two issues most discernible in pre-visit high-level Sino-U.S. discussions have been the bilateral investment treaty (BIT) and the Chinese draft law on non-governmental organizations. BIT negotiations have been going on for years, most recently revived after dialogue in 2013, intended to expand and make investment in both countries easier. Though ideally a BIT agreement would be announced during the visit, that is unlikely as too many issues still remain regarding what previously closed sectors of the Chinese economy would be opened. More likely, commitment to completing the treaty will be showcased. And the United States would like to see China reassess the wisdom of moving forward with its draft law which would severely restrict activities of foreign non-governmental organizations (NGO). The law would require such organizations to find an official Chinese sponsor and give broad latitude to Chinese authorities regarding regulation of NGO activity and funding. That seems unlikely to happen. Civil liberties are a key area where U.S. and Chinese interests differ.
President Xi Jinping’s muscular Chinese foreign policy in the South China Sea, domestic crackdown on dissidents and what the Chinese government considers the foreign fomenting of dissent, and continued expansion into overseas markets provides pundits the rationale for the “must get tough” rhetoric. Though “we would do it different” and by extension, better, often seems the extent of the “what getting tough means” discussion, Xi clearly is a very different and more ham-fisted leader than his predecessor Hu Jintao. Much like Russian President Vladimir Putin, Xi fears street demonstrations, or any challenges to governmental power, and doesn’t hesitate to quash them. He is also responding to an increasingly different domestic Chinese populace than his predecessors dealt with, a populace beginning to see a slowdown in Chinese economic growth that has for a decade or more bought the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) legitimacy, and a populace demanding to see returns on their hard work, such as a livable environment where they are not choked by pollution. With the economic engine slowing, Xi has only one other card to play to maintain CCP legitimacy, and that is nationalism; a card he plays often.
In Xi’s ideal world, the United States would recognize and treat China as an equal, a global leader. It is a leadership position China feels it is returning to, rather than ascending to, as a rising power. Such recognition would create a more bipolar world than the multipolar world most often envisioned as the future, and clearly acknowledge the end of a unipolar world run by a U.S. hegemon, benevolent or otherwise. Chinese bravado in this regard was considerably boosted by the 2008 global economic collapse, when it fared far better than many Western capitalist countries, and through watching the U.S. struggle with what seemed to come precariously close of imperial overreach during over a decade of military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Clearly, however, Xi won’t be getting his wish as China is neither an economic or military peer to the U.S. and has yet to demonstrate itself a fully responsible member of the international order, let alone a leader of the order. But, as has been shown in multiple areas of the globalized world, realism demands that often you have to take the world as it is, rather than as you want it to be. Accepting China as a player, albeit not one that mirrors American values, is more likely to be productive in reaching U.S. goals than playing the Mean Girl and shunning it.
Xi would also like the have the U.S. recognize its political system and to stop being pestered to become more democratic. China watched the Soviet Union devolve into chaos and become known as Upper Volta with nuclear weapons as it democratized, only to then have Putin pull it back to authoritarianism, and regain international standing if not respect along the way. China has no desire to repeat that scenario. Keeping 1.3 billion people employed, housed, and fed – and out of the streets – is a key political objective. Perceived foreign intervention in Chinese domestic affairs by provoking unrest with calls for civil liberties is considered a security threat.
Challenges to sovereign territorial rights are also a perceived security threat, and an opportunity for China to stir nationalistic juices. The United States has encouraged a freeze on South China Sea reclamation efforts and a good faith negotiation of a joint code of conduct for the many South China Sea claimants. Most assuredly, this topic will be discussed at the Obama-Xi meeting, though since China perceives it is doing nothing that other claimants haven’t done as well, chances of movement on such a joint code are low. Nevertheless if the United States can persuade China that unilateral activities in the region are not in China’s best interest, such as its declaration of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) without prior discussion, that in itself would be progress.
Further, there are areas where such codes have already proven effective and are being considered for expansion. Naval protocols between the United States and China intended to lower the risk of incidents of sea have proven successful to the extent they may be expanded to include Chinese coast guard vessels. Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific fleet has stated the protocols are working “quite well.” Small, prudent steps of this nature on specific areas of overlapping interest provide a model for positive cooperation between the U.S. and China more likely to be employed, or successful, than broad, comprehensive agreements subject to political attack. When necessary, however, the United States can and will also use deterrent and compellence policy tools to protect its interests.
The U.S. for its part would like China to stop its cyberattacks on U.S. businesses, government organizations and other targets. After the summer hacking of the U.S. government’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM), presumably by China, a more robust cyber policy became a top priority for Washington. Sanctions such as were imposed on North Korea after the Sony hack, criminal indictments, and even a retaliatory attack on the Great Firewall, China’s online censorship controls, have been raised for consideration. The United States is not powerless to present a formidable cyber deterrent, a fact that will undoubtedly be made clear to President Xi.
Few state visits end in fireworks-worthy announcements. It is unlikely this visit will be one that does. But if China can be nudged to align various policies to be more in line with U.S. interests in a way that allows China too to save face and claim its required victories at home, then it will have been worthwhile, and better than having not met at all. Being wise in practical affairs, acting prudently, is considered a way to build for the future. While it doesn’t involve the drama of political caterwauling or chest thumping, if it offers Americans a better future then perhaps the drama can be foregone in this instance.