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.
Third, the Obama administration itself may be growing more wary of joint communiqués. The president actually issued a joint statement after his meeting with Hu in Beijing in November 2009 in the hopes of framing a more positive vision for the future of U.S.-China relations in just the way Kissinger and Brzezinski advised in their recent op-eds. The verbage in the November statement included appreciation of both sides’ “core interests” and a laudable list of areas of bilateral cooperation. Almost nobody remembers the cooperative passages, but they do remember the statement on “core interests” since Beijing seized on the phrase to dig in further on Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang and then sought in official dialogue to expand “core interests” to cover areas not listed in the joint statement, such as the South China Sea. Over the last year, U.S.-China relations were particularly bad as Beijing pushed Southeast Asia and Japan around on territorial disputes and sided implicitly with Pyongyang after North Korean attacks on the South in March and November. The joint communiqué probably did not cause this more assertive Chinese posture, but it certainly did not prevent it, and many observers in the region have argued it sent unhelpful signals. In short, these communiqués can be somewhat risky if not backed by underlying convergence of views on the content.
Finally, a communiqué will likely fall short if it attempts to codify or institutionalize a bipolar condominium with China based on the status quo in China’s political system. Why? Because the bet that U.S. strategists made in engaging Beijing over the past four decades was that China itself would steadily change. Deng’s reforms and opening may have created the most remarkable social transformation and wealth creation in the history of the world and the American people have directly benefited from that. However, Chinese political reform has not kept pace and Beijing’s human-rights record is arguably going backwards again. The American body politic will not support a U.S.-China relationship that is framed as committing to the status quo in terms of China’s current political system and Hu is probably incapable of crafting a vision that does anything but that right now, particularly given the Chinese leadership’s allergy to what it considers “peaceful evolution” of the regime.
All of that said—this summit is important. Even if this visit is unlikely to be transformational in terms of framing the U.S.-China relationship, it could still prove indispensible in terms of reaffirming Obama and Hu’s commitment to building more cooperative relations envisioned by Kissinger and Brzezinski in the communiqués they oversaw while in office. After the rough year in U.S.-China relations we just went through, that would be an important accomplishment.
Michael J. Green is a senior adviser and holds the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is an associate professor of international relations at Georgetown University. Green served as director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council staff beginning in April 2001, and from January 2004 to December 2005 as special assistant to the president for national-security affairs and senior director for Asian affairs.