Why Hillary was Right

You’re angry with your neighbor because his kids steal apples from your tree.  You’ve spoken to him repeatedly, with little effect.  Meanwhile, a forest fire roars toward your street.  Your neighbor has a swimming pool and you have a pump.  You can: a) continue to argue over the apples and watch both houses burn; or, b) put your dispute in perspective, take your pump to his pool, spray water on both houses, and prevent a catastrophe.

It’s a simplistic analogy, but not far from where we have been in US-China relations.   Public debates on China have become focused on a host of disputes which are significant, but which don’t represent mortal threats to Americans and our way of life.  These include theft of intellectual property, the value of China’s currency, human rights, China’s investment practices in Africa, etc.

Such issues deserve attention from the US Government.  However, we need now to recognize that these concerns are in a different league from issues where bilateral collaboration is essential to prevent potentially catastrophic outcomes for us (and the world):  1) the global economic crisis; 2) climate change/energy challenges; and, 3) pandemics (bird flu, SARS, etc.) and product safety.  Some cooperation is already ongoing on these issues.  However, the goal of the new administration should be to move this cooperative agenda with China to the center of the relationship.  Achieving this goal will require two elements, one of form, and one of substance.

First, the administration in language and symbols should make clear it sees management of catastrophic global challenges as the center of the US-China relationship.   Presidential speeches on China and visits to the country should highlight this aspect of our relations, as should the agendas for visits by senior Chinese leaders to the US.  The “core message” of administration officials at all levels should emphasize this “strategic direction” for the bilateral relationship.  The administration too should work with those in Congress who understand China’s key role in tackling global issues to get their support.  Publicly positioning our strategic cooperation with China on global issues front and center as the defining theme of the relationship alone will be a significant development.

Substantively, the administration should develop significant, jointly funded US-China projects that can serve as the concrete expression of our strategic cooperation on global issues.  The area of energy/climate change is most ripe for such projects, but in any event, it will be important to have a few high profile projects showcasing the joint efforts we are making to prevent catastrophic global outcomes.

Certainly, this approach will require a reciprocal response from China.  China’s leaders too will have to overcome the voices of protectionism and mistrust which limit their ability to raise the focus of the relationship above lesser frictions.  If we make a strong effort to redefine the relationship I believe we will elicit a corresponding response from China.  If not, we are none the worse off for trying.

This approach does not mean dropping our efforts on other issues.  We should continue to press our human rights concerns, bring cases against China to the WTO when appropriate, etc.  However, the list of issues in our bilateral relations is huge, and we need to set as a priority cooperation on global issues where failure would lead to catastrophic outcomes.  In fact, to the extent the cooperative elements of the relationship grow, mutual trust and interdependence will increase, and solutions to trade, military, foreign policy and other issues will become easier.

I am optimistic about the direction of Obama Administration China policy in this context.  I believe Hillary Clinton on her trip to Beijing was signaling an approach similar to that I propose here.  Certainly, the politics of rising above areas of difference with China to focus on cooperative elements of long-term, “strategic” importance to the American people are incredibly difficult.   But there is a precedent.  At a time when China’s domestic and international policies were in all respects far worse than today, President Nixon saw that a focus on positive developments in US-China relations was key to dealing with the strategic issue of his day, an expansionist Soviet Union.

Let’s hope the Congress and all concerned Americans can at this critical time again apply a long-term, strategic vision to this important bilateral relationship.


Explore posts in the same categories: China, Environment, Investment, Trade

4 Comments on “Why Hillary was Right”

  1. LZ Says:

    needless to say, i also agree that Hillary used the right approach at the right time. however, US then issued the white paper on human rights in China, which adopted a totally different tone, strong and fast enough to overwrite Hillary’s effort. It almost seems that in terms of China policy, the administration does not have basic internal coordination that helps send a same message.
    on the other hand, while Hillary may be able to “get away” with a softer tone on China, the president, being an elected “people’s representative” will inevitably find it harder not to press hard on currency and human rights, given the public outcry. how to reconcile the short-term task of keeping the approval rating up high with the long-term goal of dancing with the dragon will be very challenging for this president.

    • levinehank Says:

      LZ: Thanks for offering first comment on this blog! Re your points: you are a bit more pessimistic than I am about how the human rights and related issues will play out in the administration. But you raise one very interesting point: the different “signals” sent by Clinton statements in Beijing vs. language in the human rights report. Here’s the way I would analyze that: The Clinton statements in Beijing were the key message and the thing to take seriously. The annual Human Rights Report has become something of a ritualized exercise. I doubt the just-released version was reviewed in detail at the highest levels at State Dept., but were it me, I’d take the attitude that the Chinese government will judge the Administration on its actions not the words in the Human Rights Report. Therefore, not worth spending too much time sweating over the wording of the report. In fact, if the China language in the report leans a bit to the tough side that is helpful with the domestic US human rights constituencies. But again, the key is to watch what the Administration does over the coming four years, not what the Human Rights Report says. (Note: this is not to say that I don’t consider human rights issues in China important. Problem is that lots of public criticism and pressure by the US government is not very helpful to advancing that agenda. Therefore, if it were me, I’d do publicly as much as I needed to do to let US human rights groups know I cared, while focusing most of my efforts in this area in private interactions, all the while recognizing (as noted in my original post) that the really big issue is working with China to prevent global catastrophies.)

      I know the public in China reacts negatively to the language in the Human Rights Report as do some in the Chinese government. But my guess is those in the foreign affairs policy community in Beijing realize the Report has more to do with symbolism than substance. In fact, a colleague in the Chinese government commented to me (before the Report was issued and before the Clinton trip) that Chinese government would be watching what US government does re human rights agenda as more important than what it says.

  2. William Baum Says:

    Video conferencing between U.S. and Chinese government officials is a natural, but how about better communication between the American and Chinese people? PRC news media have full and open access to the United States. Chinese government radio and television programs and newspapers are available in English and Chinese versions everywhere in the US including, of course, the internet. But Beijing bars U.S. media from openly communicating with the Chinese people. They even censor our Presidents’ speeches. Yes, CNN is available (although sometimes censored) in English in certain hotels and official compounds. Beijing should allow the Voice of America (in Chinese) and other major U.S. media to facilitate communication with the Chinese people. This is not just a matter of freedom of the press; it’s market access. They have untrammeled access to ours; they need to reciprocate. If China is allowed to tell its story to the people of the US, the VOA Chinese should be allowed to tell America’s story to the people of China. Doing so would greatly improve understanding between our two peoples.

    • levinehank Says:

      I agree strongly with your basic point on value of greater openness of Chinese media for improving US-China relations (and for China’s good too). I was in Shanghai at the time of the EP-3 incident and went out of my way during that period to visit universities to talk to students. They explained how angry the incident had made them and the Chinese people. I always noted that while we could have a good debate over who was right and who was wrong in this incident, one of the problems was that Chinese media presented only one side of the story and that it made it much tougher for the Chinese people to analyze all aspects of the incident and come to their own conclusions.

      This having been said, the issue you raise also takes us into the realm of goals vs. strategy to get there. It is also where the pragmatic practitioner in me takes over. I share the goal of an open Chinese media. But I don’t see it as possible in the short term. Therefore, we have to consider what realistic steps we can take to promote better communication. More communication between senior government counterparts is possible in the short term. And, in fact, such interaction, over the long run, will contribute to the exchanges of ideas and increased trust that will support the eventual move toward a more open Chinese media. [Note: I want to be clear for any of my friends in China who read this. I am not saying that the goal of increased government to government interactions is to remove media restrictions in China. Rather, I believe that moving over time to remove media restrictions is good for China and for US-China relations and that as senior US and Chinese officials interact more I believe conditions will be created that help the Chinese government feel more comfortable about further media openness.

      All pretty convoluted I know, but important I think because the line of reasoning I lay out above applies, I believe, to most of the human rights issues (and many other issues) that we raise with China. As a government official I was always focused on concrete things I could do in the short to medium term that would advance US interests in China and deepen US-China relations. It’s good to keep the ultimate goals (e.g., totally open Chinese media) in mind, but when the American public is paying your salary and wants stuff done now, just repeating the long term goals in a louder and louder voice is counter-productive in China and creates anger and frustration in the US that does no one any good.

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