As with previous meetings of the U.S.-Chinese Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) and the myriad other bilateral talks between the two governments, the official report of the outcomes of last week’s conference is replete with phrases attesting to the “constructive, in-depth and candid exchange of views on a range of security issues of strategic importance to both countries.” The emptiness of the report’s formulaic language evokes the ritualistic recitation of sterile phrases in most Security Council resolutions. There were no breakthroughs on any of the critical issues dividing the two countries—cyber espionage, North Korea, Taiwan, or China’s sweeping maritime claims and assertive actions in the East and South China Sea.
Despite the lack of substantive results, diplomats and observers take comfort in the talks being held at all, under Churchill’s admonition that “it is better to jaw-jaw than to war-war.” China’s leaders like to carry the double-word game a step further, suggesting that such talks invariably lead to “win-win” outcomes. Both China’s state councilor Yang Jiechi and vice premier Wang Yang used that phrase in op-eds they penned for the opening of the S&ED talks, in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal respectively.
For an increasing number of Americans, however, the U.S.-Chinese relationship is seen as win-lose in China’s favor. That concern is most evident in the economic realm, where China’s trade and currency practices and its theft of intellectual property and commercial secrets have meant a loss of American business and jobs while China advanced economically.
More ominously, notwithstanding sporadic references to China as a “strategic partner,” its growing military power, theft of Western military secrets, and aggressive behavior in regional disputes, particularly with U.S. allies, proceed apace. Despite all the jaw-jawing, those realities, if not moderated, could indeed lead to war-war, and that would be a definite lose-lose outcome.
Not to worry, wrote Mr. Yang: “Chinese-U.S. cooperation has promoted peace, stability and development in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. Our two countries have carried out effective coordination and cooperation on a wide range of topics, including regional hot spots such as the Korean nuclear issue and the Iranian nuclear issue.”
Yet, for more than twenty years, Beijing has supported the political survival of the odious Pyongyang regime as a bulwark against the “threat” from democratic South Korea and its American ally. Worse, China’s financial and technological aid and diplomatic protection have enabled the development of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs while empowering Beijing to posture as a “responsible stakeholder” because it hosted interminable jaw-jawing in the Six-Party Talks.
That stakeholder phrase, coined by Robert Zoellick in September 2005, was intended as aspirational, not yet descriptive of China’s current international behavior. But Beijing skillfully exploited it to enhance its international standing. While professing to be perplexed at the concept, Beijing understood that it was seen as a good thing in Western eyes and simply presumed it had already been anointed with that honored status without needing to do anything differently to earn it.
Three months after Zoellick’s speech, Dai Bingguo, China’s state councilor for foreign affairs, visited Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. (I was the notetaker at the meeting.) Though by then there had been numerous U.S. articulations of the stakeholder idea, Dai told Rumsfeld that Chinese leaders were still having trouble grasping it and asked if he would explain it in terms Dai could understand. Rumsfeld was glad to oblige and offered a simple analogy: the two of them and four other persons would jointly purchase a car and share its use equally. Since all benefitted from the arrangement, each would have equal responsibility for its care and maintenance. Dai cheerfully thanked him and said he now understood the concept much better. Neither pursued the analogy further to address the free-rider problem, whereby someone in the group might enjoy the benefits of the larger effort without contributing his fair share, or the consequence of gaming the system that way.
China’s leaders, in fact, reject the very premise of Rumsfeld’s analogy, which is that the group’s members had made a joint decision on arrangements in the first place. As Henry Kissinger has frequently reminded us, the People’s Republic of China feels no loyalty to an international system it had no part in creating. But, of course, it is happy to profit from the system that has enabled its rise.
The rhetoric of the talks, and the Wang and Yang articles, seek to convey the sense that the U.S.-Chinese relationship is simply the normal interaction between two major powers. But it is not a normal relationship when the parties have so many potential flash points that could bring them into open conflict while relations on a range of issues simmer in a kind of “cool war” standoff. (National Intelligence Director James Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee that China presents “the greatest mortal threat” to the United States.)
While they must be prudently managed, U.S.-Chinese relations never can truly be normal so long as China is not a normal state and that situation will prevail while the Communist Party holds on to monopoly power. The mutual trust so often invoked at these meetings remains unattainable because it lacks the necessary basis of shared values. The problem is not between the American and Chinese peoples or even between the U.S. government and the Chinese people, but between an insecure Chinese government and those it fears: its own people, who have not consented to its rule, and the West, which withholds its respect for that reason. The sooner China’s leaders put the country on the path to political reform, the sooner domestic and international legitimacy—and mutual trust—will follow.
Joseph A. Bosco served as China country director in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2005-2006, and is presently a member of the U.S.-China task force at the Center for the National Interest.