Did Beijing Just Blink?

Who won the latest staring contest between Beijing and Washington?

As a child, I would sit down with my younger brother for a staring contest. The winner invariably was the calmer of the two, often the one who accepted the challenge, rather than the less-confident initiator. Since the beginning of this year, the U.S. and China have been engaged in a tense staring match of their own, and it is possible that Beijing just blinked. Over the long weekend marking the end of summer, a delegation of U.S. officials led by White House National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers and Deputy National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon traveled to Beijing and were warmly received by the pinnacle of China’s leadership pyramid; President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, Vice Premier Wang Qishan and Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission General Xu Caihou. By all appearances, this senior-level bilateral interaction was very productive and a good signal that U.S.-China relations will slowly improve.

It has been a tough year for the relationship. In January, China reacted with unusual vitriol over the announced sale of a long-delayed arms package for Taiwan, with PLA commentators threatening sanctions against U.S. companies and dumping China’s holdings of U.S. Treasury Bills. Military-to-military contacts were suspended. China’s reluctance to apply pressure to Iran remained an irritant, and China’s defense of North Korea following a torpedo attack on a South Korean warship in March culminated in President Obama chiding President Hu for “willful blindness” to the DPRK’s provocations.

Concerns about Chinese irredentism and assertiveness became acute in the spring and early summer when Chinese officials began expanding the use of their self-defined term, “core national interest” to include territorial claims in the South China Sea. Unseemly exchanges took place between U.S. and Chinese defense officials at international conferences. China’s neighbors became increasingly worried, and looked to the U.S. for support. Chinese commentators, including a handful of particularly prolific PLA flag officers began referring to the entire Yellow Sea as China’s coastal waters, objecting to U.S. military vessels operating hundreds of miles from China in international waters. Several ASEAN nations encouraged the U.S. to take a position on the South China Sea territorial dispute; South Korea delayed the planned transfer of military operational command from U.S. to ROK leadership, and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama agreed to honor a 2006 agreement on maintaining a U.S. Marine base on Okinawa. Throughout, Chinese official media continuously transmitted denouncements of U.S. actions, sprinkled with vague threats, including the promise to “target” American warships and the eloquent phrase penned by Major General Luo Yuan, “if someone harms me, I must harm them.” A new Cold War seemed to be brewing amidst what many thought was a string of Chinese foreign policy missteps.

Through it all, the U.S. administration remained generally quite upbeat about the U.S.-China relationship, sometimes to the point that people started to question why there was a gap between the positive outlook expressed by U.S. officials and the tensions that Chinese commentators and official media kept broadcasting. Speaking at The Nixon Center in late July, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg highlighted the constructive role that China plays in the United Nations and G-20, as well as the constructive government-to-government relationship embodied in the Strategic & Economic Dialogue. A senior U.S. Navy officer at another Nixon Center event spoke of the strong relationship he had with his PLA counterpart. The U.S. mantra about the importance engaging and welcoming a strong and secure China that supports the international system seemed incongruent with Chinese commentary about U.S. containment strategies and various desires to undermine China.

Now, it looks like the leadership in Beijing is starting to ratchet back the rhetoric and trying to calm angry voices which increasingly appeared to be diverging from mainstream views. General Luo, who wrote in August about retaliation against those who harm China, declared in an article this week that “The US-China relationship is now the world’s most important relationship,” going on to quote Henry Kissinger and affirm that the U.S. and China are stakeholders who share numerous global interests and should cooperate rather than fight. Reports that U.S.-China military-to-military contacts will resume shortly are a particularly positive signal, or as one PLA officer stated, “at least the relationship is leaving the bottom.”

The positive tone from these meetings in Beijing indicates that cooler heads are prevailing in Chinese foreign policy and security circles and that the Obama Administration’s approach to China is effective. The U.S. has played a steady and cautious hand this year by continuing to engage China despite frustrations and angry rhetoric. While this hardly means that China will suddenly embrace all aspects of U.S. foreign policy, it is reassuring to hear the Chinese leadership reaffirm that it recognizes the value of a stable and constructive U.S.-China relationship and the benefits that can be accrued from cooperation.