Hu and the Communiqués

Why Kissinger and Brzezinski might be wrong on China.

 In the lead-up to Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit with President Barack Obama, two past architects of America’s China policy called for the creation of a new intellectual framework to stabilize the increasingly perilous U.S.-China relationship. Writing in the New York Times on January 2(“How to Stay Friends with China”), Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski argues that Hu and Obama should “codify in a joint declaration” the principles of U.S.-China relations “guided by the moral imperatives of the 21st century’s unprecedented global interdependence.” In the January 15 Washington Post (“How to Avoid a Cold War with China”), former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger recommends a U.S.-China “consultative mechanism that permits the elaboration of common long-term objectives and coordinates the positions of the two countries at international conferences.”

At first blush, these are very sensible proposals. Republican and Democratic presidents alike have sought not to contain a rising China, but to convince Chinese leaders to use their growing economic and political power to help solve regional and global challenges. Hu Jintao, like his predecessor Jiang Zemin, is essentially a Denghist, which is to say that his first priority is “peaceful development” and a “harmonious society” at home. Hu needs to demonstrate responsible stewardship of U.S.-China relations to legitimize his own legacy and the correctness of Deng’s decision to reform, open and engage the United States three decades ago. The first three communiqués (1972, 1979 and 1982) each helped in turn to stabilize and define a more productive era in U.S.-China relations. Kissinger supervised the first and Brzezinski the second, so they know of what they speak. Right now the State Department and NSC are reportedly hard at work on a new draft communiqué with the Chinese side for Hu’s visit to Washington.

On deeper reflection, however, it is both unlikely that there will be an enduring communiqué for this visit and perhaps unwise to try too hard to create one. There are four reasons why:

First, as Brzezinski acknowledges in his op-ed in the Times, the first three communiqués were shaped by common Sino-American antipathy toward the Soviet Union. The thrust of each communiqué was therefore win-win for Beijing and Washington. Brzezinski and Kissinger both suggest that the same common purpose could be harnessed against global challenges such as climate change today. That was the expectation of the Obama administration in its first year as well. But the administration learned at Copenhagen that China does not see issues like climate change as so clear cut, particularly since (in the Chinese view) the developed countries’ solution for global warming would threaten China’s own economic development. Moreover, the security challenges that drive Chinese thinking today are overwhelmingly domestic first, followed by Taiwan and immediate external threats to Chinese security second, and then global issues such as proliferation and climate change as only a distant third. Indeed, some regional issues that should unite Beijing and Washington, such as North Korea’s nuclear proliferation, are proving increasingly divisive as Beijing tolerates intolerable military provocations and weapons development by Pyongyang. We need candid strategic discussions with Beijing on these issues, but it would be a stretch to argue that we are beginning from a common basis of threat perception.

Second, China’s political leadership cannot deliver on communiqués today the way Mao and Deng could three and four decades ago. Hu Jintao is now essentially a lame duck as the Chinese Communist Party heads into a leadership transition in 2012. His presumed successor, Xi Jinping, has reportedly had his own accession delayed by the more nationalistic leadership of the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA). Hu and Xi face nationalistic pressures internally that Mao and Deng never faced. Meanwhile, Chinese leaders are having difficulty getting their arms around the PLA’s growing capability and assertive attitudes on foreign policy—as U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates found during his visit in Beijing, when the PLA Air Force surprised the Chinese president by testing their new J-20 “stealth” fighter the day of Gates’ meeting with Hu. We will see how Xi fares as leader, but for now there are structural problems in Chinese politics and civil-military relationships that constrain what Chinese leaders can say in joint communiqués and what they can deliver afterwards.