Chinese Strateg-urrance

Our guest blogger is Nina Hachigian, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund

Earlier this week, as he prepared to leave for Asia, President Obama called the U.S. relationship with China a “strategic partnership.” This is a big move. The term is an upgrade from President Bush’s label “constructive and cooperative and candid” and a far cry from Bush’s campaign term “strategic competitor.” President Obama’s comments are 100% certain to be met with accusations of appeasement and naivete by the not-always-so-loyal opposition. The neocons didn’t like the concept of “strategic reassurance” that Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg unveiled a few weeks ago, and spoke about at a recent event, and they are going to like this even less. But using this term before his first visit is a very smart move.  First, let’s be clear about what President Obama said and the context in which he said it. In response to a reporter’s question about how he views China, President Obama began by saying that he sees China as “a vital partner, as well as a competitor.” Later he stated that “on critical issues, whether climate change, economic recovery, nuclear non-proliferation, it’s very hard to see how we succeed or China succeeds in our respective goals without working together. And that is, I think, the purpose of the strategic partnership.”  So it is clear, in case you hear otherwise, that President Obama does not think China is our best friend. In addition to calling China a “competitor,” he went on to say that he raises human rights, “universal rights” he called them, in every meeting with the Chinese. We know that he hasn’t hesitated to anger Beijing when policy calls for that, as his controversial decision on trade sanctions on Chinese tires illustrates. In fact, the entire trip itinerary makes clear that China is only one element of US Asia policy. President Obama is strengthening our traditional alliances in Japan and South Korea, and finally getting the US in the game of multilateral diplomacy in APEC and ASEAN on which China has been running the tables over the last eight years. Obama referred to a strategic partnership with China in the context of major transnational threats. China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon, its most dynamic large economy and a nuclear power that neighbors North Korea and buys more oil from Iran than any other country. If China isn’t our partner, then we are in trouble.  The problem is that China has not been a reliable partner. It has been reluctant to take the kind of proactive steps on global challenges that the US wants and needs it to. As I detail in a new report, China is very engaged in all the international institutions and very prepared at the international summits — and this is a big step in the right direction — but you can count on a couple of fingers the number of times China has taken proactive leadership on a global threat: (1) North Korea (but it took enormous and constant US pressure to get them to lead on the Six Party Talks) and (2) the avian and swine flu pandemics, but on those their active leadership has consisted of convening international conferences, not exactly a mind-blowing example of international problem-solving. Beijing is not using its leverage with Iran to end its nuclear program, it has so far resisted agreeing to limits on its carbon emissions that would make a necessary global deal to address climate change possible, and the steps China is taking to move to a domestic-led growth model that will address global economic imbalances are welcome but too few and too slow. What the Chinese will tell you is that they achieve a trusting relationship by, first, developing trust with their counterpart and only then doing things together. This is exactly reverse, they will say, of Americans, who want to get things done together and develop trust in the process. President Obama’s gesture gives China’s leaders some strategic reassurance that he has a positive view of the relationship. He is offering a modicum of pre-trust that the Chinese say they need. This is not weakness — it is clever diplomacy. If, over time, the Chinese do not cooperate more deeply, then “strategic partnership” will fail to become an accurate description of the relationship. The term could end up just a blip in the historical fluctuations of US-China terminology. But instead I hope that, in a few years, it turns out to be a positive, accurate and unremarkable description of our relationship with China.