National Security Network

Engaging China

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Report 28 July 2009

China China china Hillary Clinton Obama Administration


Senior American and Chinese leaders began two days of high level talks yesterday under the framework of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue. In recognition of China’s emergence on the international scene, the Obama administration has expanded the dialogue with China to encompass a whole range of international strategic and economic issues, such as the global economic recession, climate change, and nonproliferation. The Administration has also quietly made clear its larger strategy:  that progress on contentious areas such as human rights and democracy promotion, can best be encouraged by engagement on areas where there is agreement – removing the excuses that the last eight years’ policies gave many around the world for ignoring or downgrading genuine US concerns for the freedom and well-being of others.  But as the Obama administration is seeking to build a constructive relationship, many conservatives have described China as the next big enemy – using its rise to justify many unnecessary weapons programs, such as the F-22. Conservatives also seem to discount the strategic and economic costs of China adopting a confrontational approach toward the U.S. While the U.S. and China won’t always see eye to eye, the President explained that “that only makes dialogue more important.”

Obama administration broadens scope of strategic dialogue with China – cooperation essential for addressing global challenges.  Heading into this week’s strategic dialogue with China, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner laid out the strategic case for U.S. – China cooperation: “Simply put, few global problems can be solved by the U.S. or China alone. And few can be solved without the U.S. and China together. The strength of the global economy, the health of the global environment, the stability of fragile states and the solution to nonproliferation challenges turn in large measure on cooperation between the U.S. and China. While our two-day dialogue will break new ground in combining discussions of both economic and foreign policies, we will be building on the efforts of the past seven U.S. administrations and on the existing tapestry of government-to-government exchanges and cooperation in several dozen different areas.”  “At the top of the list will be assuring recovery from the most serious global economic crisis in generations and assuring balanced and sustained global growth once recovery has taken hold,” continued Clinton and Geithner, also going on to mention “climate change, energy and the environment,” and “finding complementary approaches to security and development challenges in the region and across the globe,” as other important priorities.  The Obama administration’s efforts to engage China in a dialogue on the full complement of shared concerns has already yielded positive results, according to today’s New York Times.  “Mrs. Clinton pushed for the State Department to take an equal role in the talks, previously weighted toward economic issues. By broadening the scope, China and the United States were able to forge common cause on issues like North Korea. Mrs. Clinton praised the Chinese government last week for doing more to support American efforts to pressure Pyongyang.” [Hillary Clinton and Timothy Geithner, via the WSJ, 7/27/09. NY Times, 7/28/09]

Conservative fear-mongering over China threatens to send relationship toward unnecessary discord and confrontation.  Fear-mongering toward China carries the potential for complicating, even damaging consequences.  The US enjoys a seven-to-one edge in defense spending and significant technological advantages.  Furthermore, as Council on Foreign Relations economist Brad Setser points out, China now holds $2 trillion in U.S. reserves.  Back in 2008, Atlantic journalist James Fallows spoke to China Investment Corporation President Gao Xiqing, who then oversaw nearly $200 billion in U.S. reserves.  Asked if he had any advice for a U.S. audience, Xiqing replied “be nice to the countries that lend you money.”

Yet prominent conservatives see China policy as a free opportunity for overheated rhetoric.  2008 Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney conflated China, Russia and ‘jihadists,’ warning: “Do not imagine for a single moment that China, Russia, and the jihadists have no intention of surpassing America and leading the world. Each is entirely convinced that it can do so.”  Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich seems to think that a seven-to-one advantage in defense spending is not enough to protect the US,  arguing that the U.S. should plan a defense budget around competition with China and urging Americans to ask themselves “What happens the morning one of our competitors has a breakout we are not ready for?”  This is in spite of the fact that according to Reuters, China’s 2009 defense budget is expected to be roughly $70 billion, a fraction of the $534 billion in base spending requested by the Obama administration.  [Brad Setser, 7/22/09. The Atlantic, December 2008. Mitt Romney, via the Boston Globe, 6/2/09. Mitt Romney, via the Heritage Foundation, 6/3/09. Newt Gingrich, via the Heritage Foundation, 7/20/09. Reuters, 7/27/09]

China engagement is part of a broader strategy of engagement and cooperation – and a calculation that engagement on shared concerns will also produce progress on human rights, other areas of difference. The president laid out this policy yesterday:  The AP reports, “Obama on Monday told ambassadors to the United States that his administration is committed to working with countries to advance common goals. He told the diplomats visiting the White House that he looks forward to working with them to advance peace and prosperity. Obama says diplomats previously discussed war and peace, but they now discuss everything from education, environment and even athletics. He says the United States cannot solve its problems unless the solutions involve cooperation among nations.”

Author Mike Signer explains how this engagement strategy brings US power to bear on areas of concern such as human rights and democracy promotion: “Obama has begun to build a new paradigm for democracy promotion on the smoldering ruins of the neocons' failures... The new policy of engagement is already bearing fruit... Muslim extremists like the Saudi sheikh Abd al-Aziz al-Julayyil have written that Obama's engagement is ‘extremely dangerous’ because it is ‘weakening [Muslims'] enmity toward America and makes them more positively inclined toward her future policies. It is numbing them, reducing their hatred toward infidels, and making them stop fighting.’ This was the point of Obama's Nowruz address to the Iranian people -- to communicate directly with them and share America's democracy. This was the goal of his recent speech in Cairo -- to work directly with millions of moderate Muslims to stir the desire for freedom within their culture. And it's the ambition of his Iranian policy; through restraint, nuance, and pressure, he hopes to allow and encourage reformers to agitate for reform without exposing them to the regime's reflexive anti-Americanism.”  

This approach extends to China -- at yesterday’s opening of U.S.-China talks, “Mr. Obama referred frankly to tensions over human rights, saying that the United States believes the ‘that all peoples should be free to speak their minds — and that includes ethnic and religious minorities in China,” reports The New York Times.  The administration has taken the same approach to Russia, meeting with opposition leaders and finding channels to make US concerns clear.  
 [AP, 7/27/09. Mike Signer, 7/10/09. NY Times, 7/28/09. United Russia, 7/7/09]

What We’re Reading

Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Iraq today for a surprise visit. After a brief stop in southern Iraq, Mr. Gates flew to Baghdad for meetings with Iraqi political leaders, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as well as Gen. Ray Odierno. While there, Mr. Gates will also try to help bridge the deep divide that has emerged between Iraq’s ethnic Kurds and majority Arabs that many fear may undermine security gains, a senior US defense official said.

The deaths of at least three detainees arrested in Iran’s post-election protests have prompted top Iranian officials to call for greater protection of opposition demonstrators held in custody. Meanwhile, leading opposition figure Mir-Hossein Mousavi urges his supporters to flood the streets of Tehran in protest during a religious festival next week.

British military leaders admit that the country will need more troops in order to achieve success in Afghanistan.

The Obama administration has told Syria that it will work to ease U.S. sanctions against Damascus that have been in place since 2004. The gestures come as part of an effort to woo Syria away from its strategic alliance with Iran and co-opt it into helping to stabilize Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories.

In Israel, the US special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu say that they have made “good progress” in talks about reviving the regional peace process.

As drug-related violence continues in Mexico, President Felipe Calderon has come under growing pressure to change tactics in his administration’s efforts against the cartels and overhaul an anti-narcotics strategy that many leaders and analysts say is failing amid spectacular assaults against the government.

The US has turned off a giant electronic billboard at its diplomatic mission in Havana that was put up during the Bush administration to deliver news and political messages to the Cuban people.

Commentary of the Day

The Boston Globe writes that the US should let Federal courts deal with Guantanamo Detainees.

The Times of London asserts that military victory cannot be won in Afghanistan without a political settlement negotiated from a position of strength.

The LA Times chastises Vice President Joe Biden for his recent statements on Russia, saying they “don't say a lot for his supposed foreign policy expertise.” Peter Feaver in Foreign Policy disagrees, saying Biden is “more right than not in terms of his geopolitical analysis.”

Francis Fukuyama provides insight into the nature of the Iranian government and its relationship with its people.

Phillip Saunders and Scott Kastner shed light on the improving relations between China and Taiwan and their potential effect on US strategy in the region.