Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up his two-day visit to Beijing late last week with the release of a four-sentence joint statement on climate change. Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, thought to have a pipeline to the Chinese leadership, reports that the “only result” of his consultations in Beijing was “a commitment to seek greater co-operation” on that issue. Climate change, along with North Korea, was at the top of Kerry’s agenda, according to a former State Department official with knowledge of the trip.
There was no progress on more pressing matters, such as the worsening humanitarian crisis in Syria or the ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Moreover, there were, according to the Post, no “breakthroughs” on what many believe to be the most important topic of discussion, Beijing’s provocative actions in the East China and South China Seas. “Kerry’s China visit only provided an opportunity for both sides to make clear their differences on these issues,” said the oft-quoted Shi Yinhong of Renmin University in Beijing.
Shi’s assessment looks correct. Kerry, for instance, did not adhere to custom and hold a joint press conference with his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Instead, America’s top diplomat took questions in what the State Department termed a “Solo Press Availability.” During the event, Kerry spent almost all his time relaying what he said to his hosts, a sign there was little substantive agreement. Even on climate change, the Chinese do not appear to have progressed far from last April, during Kerry’s first visit to China as secretary of state.
Nonetheless, he spoke with great optimism after his day of meetings in the Chinese capital. As Kerry told the press, “Our partnership with China we view as one of great potential.”
Secretaries of state have been sensing great potential in China since President Nixon went to visit Mao Zedong in 1972. Five Chinese and seven American leaders later and the thinking has not changed much, at least on the American side. Consistent and bipartisan American policy has sought to ease China’s entry into the world, helping Beijing adhere to norms, contribute to the global commons, and become a peaceful member of the international community.
The thinking is that China will realize it has the same general interests as the U.S.—that it will become a “responsible stakeholder” to borrow Bush-era lingo—so it too will support the institutional framework created after the Second World War. Washington’s policy presumes the U.S. can engage the Chinese and enmesh them into that system. It not only can happen, we think, it must happen. “We simply cannot afford,” Nixon wrote in his landmark 1967 Foreign Affairs article, “to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors.” To avoid the horrible prospect of more than a billion hateful and threatening Chinese, America’s enlightened engagement of China has become more than just a policy or doctrine; it has attained the status of geopolitical religion, a paradigm.
Yet as Kissinger pointed out in On China, “In all of China’s extravagant history, there was no precedent for how to participate in a global order, whether in concert with—or opposition to—another superpower.”And these days, under new leader Xi Jinping, Beijing is showing it cannot reconcile itself to any system, however accommodating, created by others. He is using China’s newfound strength to seize specks in surrounding seas, to lay claim to international waters, to push out the country’s borders. Perhaps most troubling are his regime’s oblique threats to use China’s most destructive weapons, such as in boasts made last October, without provocation, about the ability of the Chinese navy to launch nuclear-tipped missiles toward the West Coast of the United States.
Xi’s actions suggest that all his talk of “building a new model of China-U.S. relationship” is merely blather or a cover for something more sinister. He may say he wants to “enhance dialogue, boost mutual trust and cooperation and properly handle differences,” as he did after meeting Kerry, but clearly that is not what he has in mind.
Beijing’s apparent hostility has led American policymakers to lower their expectations of what can be accomplished. Perhaps they are taking their cue from one of the architects of America’s China policy. “The appropriate label for the Sino-American relationship is less partnership than ‘co-evolution.’ ” wrote Kissinger. “It means that both countries pursue their domestic imperatives, cooperating where possible, and adjust their relations to minimize conflict. Neither side endorses all the aims of the other or presumes a total identity of interests, but both sides seek to identify and develop complementary interests.”
That is precisely what Kerry was doing on his visit to the Chinese capital. He effectively downplayed the most urgent matters on the agenda and focused on possible areas of cooperation, climate and North Korea. Climate and North Korea are of course important, but neither looks as urgent as the current threats to peace and stability in East Asia, China’s provocative maritime activities.
Kerry’s strategy allowed the multi-decade conversation with Beijing to continue, but the cost was high. America’s China’s policy has narrowed, and Washington is now playing “small ball.” It may not be appeasing China, as Philippine president Benigno Aquino charged this month with his pointed reference to the dismembering of Czechoslovakia in 1938, but Americans are diligently trying to avoid confronting Beijing’s fundamental challenges to world order.
One day, Washington will have to confront those challenges as they threaten not only important allies and friends but also U.S. interests, such as freedom of navigation. This leads us to the central question in Sino-U.S. ties today: How is Washington going to develop stable relations with a China roiling its region? Many believe democracies can maintain stable ties with hardline regimes, but even the realist Kissinger thinks the form of government is important. “Some congruence on values is generally needed to supply an element of restraint,” he has elegantly written. The problem is that America has no such congruence with the values, stated or practiced, by the Communist Party of China, and the challenges Beijing poses are not merely those of a rising power but are ultimately rooted in its increasingly troubled political system.
As Ronald Reagan believed, the nature of regimes matters. And as political scientist Minxin Pei reminds us, “Although an illiberal regime can occasionally demonstrate tactical brilliance in diplomacy, its execution of a constructive, long-term foreign policy will be undermined by the character flaws inherent in autocracies: insecurity, secrecy, intolerance and unpredictability.” So we should not be surprised that an insecure, secretive, intolerant and unpredictable China cannot these days compromise or maintain good relations with its neighbors, with the international community, with us. Americans understood this during the Cold War, but it is a lesson we no longer know today.
It was undoubtedly the right policy to ally with China during the existential struggle of that period, but after the Soviet collapse Washington continued the relationship with China’s one-party state even though the reason for the tie-up no longer existed. At first, that seemed like the right strategy as the Chinese responded with their “smile diplomacy.” Beijing then worked hard to assimilate into the global order.
Yet that was just a phase while China strengthened itself. In the last few years, and particularly since the end of 2009, Beijing’s conduct has markedly deteriorated, indicating that its benign-looking policies were merely temporary tactics. By the end of the last decade, the Chinese evidently thought they owned the rest of the century, and then they went out to prove it.
American policy adjusted to China’s provocative behavior by trying even harder to accommodate Beijing, and as Chinese threats became louder, Washington responded by trying to increase contact. In the last half decade, for instance, the U.S. talked to China in every conceivable format, formal and informal, bilateral and multilateral, secret and announced. Discussions were held in Washington and Beijing and many places in between. There were state visits, the Strategic and Economic Dialogues, and even the “shirtsleeves summit” in southern California last June. Today, there are over ninety bilateral forums between the United States and China, up from around fifty during the administration of George W. Bush.
Yet as the interactions between American and Chinese officials increased dramatically, ties between the two nations became worse. Obviously something was wrong. American policy may have been generous, but it was in fact failing to provide incentives to China to make better decisions. As Kerry’s visit makes clear, the United States now has a minimalist policy, downgrading the most important issues in order to maintain dialogue.
Dialogue is good, but resolving critical issues is better. Washington, at this consequential time, needs a new China paradigm.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang (http://twitter.com/GordonGChang).