I’ve been away from this blog for a long time, but every now and then something outrageous enough surfaces to drive me back:
One of the great pleasures of my younger days was sitting on the promenade in Brooklyn Heights, sipping from a container of Tropicana orange juice while nibbling on a fresh pastry and taking a leisurely read through the Sunday New York Times. I note this to emphasize that I am a huge fan of the NYT. It is in fact the first thing I read each morning (though online now). But that is why a particularly shallow and sensationalized article from that source is so upsetting.
Headline of the article (on the first page of the paper’s online edition) reads: “China’s Role as Lender Alters Dynamics for Obama’s Visit” and here’s the link: article.
The gist of the piece can be summarized as: The US owes China a lot of money so, unlike his predecessors, Obama is afraid to criticize China too much on his visit there. Some samples from the article:
“… unlike his immediate predecessors, who publicly pushed and prodded China to follow the Western model and become more open politically and economically, Mr. Obama will be spending less time exhorting Beijing and more time reassuring it.
…It is a long way from the days when President George W. Bush hectored China about currency manipulation, or when President Bill Clinton exhorted the Chinese to improve human rights.
Mr. Obama has struck a mollifying note with China. He pointedly singled out the emerging dynamic at play between the United States and China during a wide-ranging speech in Tokyo on Saturday that was meant to outline a new American relationship with Asia.
“The United States does not seek to contain China,” Mr. Obama said. “On the contrary, the rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations.”
He alluded to human rights but did not get specific. ‘We will not agree on every issue,’ he said, ‘and the United States will never waver in speaking up for the fundamental values that we hold dear — and that includes respect for the religion and cultures of all people.’”
What a crock. It is really disturbing to see such a total lack of understanding of US-China dynamics from such a distinguished source.
Here’s the way to think about the way the Administration is approaching US-China relations, including the President’s visit:
1) Important countries get treated differently from less important countries, always. Since Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, the US has treated China more carefully than Liberia. For that matter, Liberia treats the US more carefully than Peru. And Russia treats Japan more carefully than Chile. All administrations from Nixon on, have maintained a delicate balancing act of seeking to promote a wide range of evolving US interests with China, including security, trade, and human rights. Some administrations have pushed on a particular area more publicly at one time and others have pushed on other areas at other times. This administration is no different in this regard.
2) The money the US owes China is just not a factor in the overall mix of policy considerations shaping this (or the previous) administration’s approach. Yes (as noted in the NYT piece), the Chinese now ask more questions about the health of the US economy. But this reflects their increasing sense of vulnerability about their exposure to the US economy. One could just as well write an article saying that the Chinese leaders will be especially nice to Obama because they want to encourage him to take policies to keep the US economy strong and protect the value of China’s large US debt holdings. It is pure nonsense to suggest Obama will pull his punches on human rights or other issues because China holds lots of US treasury bonds. The US wants to get the US economy back on track and wants China to maintain strong economic growth while shifting to more reliance on domestic consumption. The Chinese government, and the rest of the world, want, and need, the same thing. There may be differences at the margins on particular policy steps, but there is no “leverage” here that either side has on the other.
3) Though the fundamental US approach to China has not changed in 37 years (i.e., an effort to pursue a complex and changing set of US interests, each has brought its own style and areas of emphasis, in part depending on external developments (think: mutual fear over the Soviet intentions, Tiananmen, the collapse of the Soviet Union, etc.). This administration clearly believes it is now critical to deepen cooperation with China in preventing global catastrophes, especially those dealing with: the global economy; climate change; the spread of weapons of mass destruction; North Korea and Iran; and pandemics. The process of deepened cooperation on global issues began in the Bush Administration with regard to the economic crisis, but the current administration is clearly seeking to broaden and deepen this kind of engagement. In doing so, it is the case that more activities and public pronouncements on China will center around these global issues rather than others in the relationship. I suppose one could say that in this sense the Administration is giving less public attention to human rights in China, but this is not the same thing as suggesting that the administration is treading lightly in this area because the US owes China a lot of money, as the NYT suggests.
4) And last but not least: Those who slam the administration for allegedly being afraid to press China on human rights have some serious explaining to do. If the policy of publicly hectoring China on human rights was so successful in the past, why are we all still so concerned about the human rights situation there? Where are the big achievements from that approach? If the tough approach is the key, why did Bill Clinton (cited as a role model in the NYT piece) back down, with egg on his face, from his linkage of human rights to trade in the early part of his administration? The point is that this administration’s enhanced cooperation with China on key global issues coupled with a less public approach on human rights stands at least as good a chance of achieving results as the in-your-face approach to this issue that some urge. I believe progress on human rights in China will take decades and that those improvements will come as the result of changing priorities by the people of China. Respectful exchanges of ideas with government and non-government actors in the US will play a role in this process. Public hectoring adds little to the mix. In any event, that fact that the current administration has shifted from a more public, critical approach on human rights to one emphasizing broad cooperation between our countries and quiet discussion of human rights, does not mean they are abandoning the search for progress in this area.
So, with much sadness, I can only report that this NYT article reaches a new (recent) low in China analysis from the news publication I admire most. Let’s hope things improve soon.