Media Misinterpret Obama’s China Policy

Our guest blogger is Nina Hachigian, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

China not our Lapdog! Is this really an insight deserving of major real estate on the front page of the Sunday New York Times’ Week in Review?

The Times proclaims that “the United States is heading into a future in which countries like China, with independent sources of power, are not reliant on or easily influenced by the United States, and so are pursuing their own national interests.” Their own national interests! Shocking! The piece continues that “a new reality” is emerging: “a Sino-American relationship that…must be carefully calibrated to balance American demands against what Beijing can realistically be persuaded to do.” Right. And the punch-line is…?

Most of the piece rehearses such truisms, but it is actually misleading when it suggests that the Obama Administration had not fully grasped national interest as the basic driver of major power diplomacy from Day One. The China policy veterans in charge are well-steeped in the difficulties of persuading China, not to mention privy to the internal opinions of the Chinese government of the sort that Wikileaks has released (contradicting the Times’ assertion that a divided Korea is necessarily the best guarantor of China’s long-term interests, for example).

These professionals, with decades of experience, understand the challenge of trying to leverage China. They do not just “push, prod and cajole,” though those steps are part of the meat and potatoes of diplomacy. They use a variety of creative incentives and disincentives, including making common cause with other nations. The Administration has been able to make progress in a number of areas, including in getting China to agree to a tough UN sanctions package against Iran, despite, as Cooper notes, Beijing’s need for energy from that country.

The New York Times is not alone here. Much of the media has failed to get the narrative of China policy in this Administration. Obama was neither naïve about what he could get from China nor intimidated by Beijing when he entered office. He was making a conscious choice to reverse the tradition of American presidents to come into office swearing tough action against China just to have to awkwardly reverse course a year or two later when confronted with the cold reality of how interdependent the US and China are.

Obama led with respect, trying to increase the odds that together our nations could tackle a number of enormous global challenges we face. To a degree, this worked. In 2009, coordination between Washington and Beijing helped keep the world economy from falling off the cliff. The US and China worked together to come up with strict sanctions against North Korea in the US Security Council, and China, for the first time, enforced them.

America did not get the result it had hoped for in Copenhagen climate change negotiations at the end of 2009, but it could have been, and might have been, worse, had US-China relations been antagonistic at that point. And after Obama’s state visit last fall, Beijing and Washington agreed to a variety of joint clean energy initiatives that may well yet bear fruit.

In early 2010, Obama made a series of decisions that greatly irritated the Chinese. The Administration was not changing tacks, but continuing long-standing US policies. Obama approved a large arms package to Taiwan and met with the Dali Lama. Later this year, Secretary of State Clinton called for “collaborative diplomatic process” to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Seas. And in response to the North Korean sinking of a South Korean warship, Washington sent an aircraft carrier into the Yellow Sea, just off China’s coast. This was not designed to rattle China, but to discourage North Korean antics.

Because the media had earlier reported that Obama had kowtowed to Beijing, the their explanation for these decisions was that the Administration suddenly realized China would not roll over and beg and was thus forced to take a harder line. That is really selling American diplomats short. Let’s hope a silver lining of the Wikileaks scandal is to show the media how nuanced, grounded and hard-nosed American foreign policy making can be.