Beijing's Fragile Swagger

by Steve Clemons Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note and is editor-at-large of Talking Points Memo. He also directs the American Strategy Program of the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank. 23.07.2010

The US should be more ready to stand its ground with China. It won't get any respect in Beijing for trying to appease it.

Confucius said 'The superior man is firm in the right way, and not merely firm.' From a Chinese perspective, the same can probably be said about other nations.

When Hillary Clinton was running for the US presidency, she encouraged then President George W. Bush to boycott the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics to signal US frustration over China's treatment of Tibet and lack of cooperation on Sudan.

Her posture, reversed since she became Secretary of State, was remarkably un-presidential as any serious geopolitical analyst would have noted that the United States needed China's support on virtually every one of its major international objectives-from redirecting Iran's nuclear aspirations to climate change to stabilizing a global financial system near meltdown.

Indeed, gratuitous gut punches simply raise the cost of China's support, underscoring the fact that Clinton's approach in the summer of 2008 was simply the wrong way to be 'firm.'

But there's also another side to China, and it's one that doesn't respect 'desperate' friendship, groveling or appeasement. It's this element to Chinese foreign policymaking that means the United States can't simply acquiesce to all of China's demands and expect China to respond in kind.

After just a short time in Beijing recently, with an unscripted schedule and no government handlers, the most significant gap in attitudes that I've found between average Chinese up to senior state officials on the one hand, and Washington's Mandarins on the other, is a different calculation about political firmness and resolve.

Those leading the Chinese government, for the most part, put a premium on opaqueness and disdain transparency. Cautiousness is rewarded; risk-taking often punished. But perhaps most importantly, while these architects of China's rise respect and respond to power, they view solicitousness and vacillation as weakness.

The implications of this power dynamic in Chinese calculations are vital for US-China relations. In other words, a United States that dithers on the release of a report on currency manipulation, or that offers a US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue that buries all controversial issues and offers only what China wants to hear (as happened in July 2009), or that allows China to repeatedly veto key military exercises in the seas of Northeast Asia is, put simply, a weak United States.

Indeed, China has watched Israel-a client state of the United States-discipline the White House. No matter what the realities are behind the scenes, the publics in the US, Israel and around the world see an Obama presidency that seems to need positive relations with Israel more than Israel needs or wants US presidential affection. Meanwhile, China sees America's military capacity overstretched in Afghanistan and Iraq and notes US allies behaving as if they can't count on the United States for the same level of support they once could. This has contributed to a situation whereby many of these same allies are now courting China for support, investment and strategic dialogue as they perceive a United States in decline.

The irony of all of this is that China doesn't want US power to fall away rapidly-it wants the United States to remain a vital, global force with which China has deep structural relations.

The reason? China wants to free-ride on US global power because it fears its own internal fragility. China knows that it's not ready to carry the burden of global stability and isn't ready to position itself as a provider of global public goods while it's still in a mode of highly concentrated neo-mercantilist self interest.

China fears the Obama administration is weak, very weak-and that the world will keep provoking the United States to see where its power begins and ends. In fact, China is doing the same thing-testing US resolve, including rejecting six times US-Republic of Korea joint military exercises that will now go on despite Chinese objections (which they have themselves recently softened).

China has also rebuked the Obama administration for arranging a meeting with the Dalai Lama and protested vehemently over arms sales to Taiwan, a move that prompted it to suspend military-to-military exchanges and block a trip to China planned by Defense Secretary Gates. In the words of both a senior US interlocutor with the Chinese government and a senior Chinese official, 'China is poking the US to see how America will respond.'

The impression in Beijing is that the United States is desperate for China's support and fears upending a relationship it badly needs. The reality, according to both Chinese and informed foreign expatriate voices here is that while China will escalate to near breaking point a dispute of some sort, ultimately China will respect resolve and won't break the compact of cooperation.

The Chinese experience is that the US regularly blinks first-and works harder for Chinese attention than China is willing to work for US attention. This gives it an edge in the Sino-American relationship that many in the Chinese government actually aren't particularly comfortable with. They want a stronger United States, one with vision and one that's willing to continue to set the terms of the global order that China is prospering in.

Unfortunately, what they see instead is a desperate country that swings between appeasement of China's geoeconomic and geopolitical appetite on one side, and fear of China and talk about containing or punishing or imposing surcharges on it on the other.

It's ironic then that these two extremes, which China believes demonstrate the United States is forfeiting its dominance in the international system, validate China's sense of importance and evolving swagger, one which many in Beijing actually believe is a 'fragile swagger' that's not yet ready for primetime.


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