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U.S.-China's Knotty but Necessary Ties

Interviewee: John Pomfret, Adjunct Senior Fellow for China Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
May 13, 2011

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China and the United States next week hold their first military-to-military talks since 2009, following on the heels of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington May 9-10. China's foreign and domestic policies have hardened considerably over the past couple of years, says CFR China expert John Pomfret. The Chinese have shown "quite bumbling and counterproductive" policies toward South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, says Pomfret, who also points out that China's domestic crackdown--which has drawn sharp criticism from the Obama administration--is "the worst since" the Tiananmen Square shootings. On the complex ties between the United States and China, Pomfret quotes a former premier, Zhu Rongii, who said: "U.S.-China relations can never be wonderful, but they really can't collapse."

In the aftermath of the recent conference between China and the United States, how would you describe U.S.-Chinese relations?

The line said by the former premier of China, Zhu Rongii [1998-2003] about U.S.-China relations still holds true, which is basically that "U.S.-China relations can never be wonderful, but they really can't collapse." That's basically where we are. We're in a period where we need to cooperate, but we're also competing intensively. The Chinese are competing with us more than we're competing with them.

Are they competing economically and strategically? Politically?

They want to compete strategically and politically, but they can't quite achieve that because specifically in the last couple of years, their diplomacy has become quite bumbling and counterproductive in comparison to what appears to be their aims, which is to assure their neighboring countries and the rest of the world that China's rise is not a threat to the global order.

Give some examples of where they've faltered.

Probably the most evident is in their relations with South Korea. China normalized relations with South Korea in 1992, much to the chagrin of the North Koreans. Basically from 1992 to about 2008-2009, they really succeeded in having the best of both worlds--an excellent relationship with Seoul along with close ties to Pyongyang. Their dealing with the two Koreas was real testimony to the flexibility of Chinese diplomacy in those years.

Starting in 2009, but really picking up in 2010, the Chinese seem to have made a decision to lean significantly toward North Korea. When North Korea sank [South Korea's] Cheonan, in March 2010, the Chinese basically didn't criticize the North Koreans at all, causing a lot of chagrin in South Korea. And when the North Koreans shelled Yeonpyeong Island off the coast of South Korea last November, for the first time killing South Korean civilians, there was barely a peep from Beijing.

This new Chinese attitude has pushed the South Koreans even more deeply into the camp of the United States. It's also pushed the South Koreans into considering some type of a military arrangement with Japan, which, if you remember the long history of Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula, is sort of shocking.

For the last ten to fifteen years we've been used to Chinese competence on a variety of fronts, and to suddenly be confronted with two very bad years of Chinese diplomacy is shocking, because we had assumed greater competence on the part of the Chinese leadership.

Relations between China and Japan have become tense?

Yes, and it is striking because in August 2009, history was made in Japan with the election--almost the first time in fifty years--of an opposition party to lead the Japanese government, the Democratic Party of Japan. That is a political party that has always believed in maintaining more equidistance between Beijing and Washington and not siding as closely with the Americans as the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan had for many decades. But instead of welcoming this development, China became quite aggressive toward the Japanese. The Chinese have continued to have their submarines in Japanese territorial waters and, even as recently as several weeks ago, the Peoples Liberation Army buzzed Japanese self defense ships with their helicopters.

The third country the Chinese have succeeded in alienating is Vietnam. This has to do with China's claims to the whole of the one million square mile South China Sea that the Chinese claim as totally theirs. Vietnam, which borders that area, has begged to differ. China has been quite aggressive with Vietnamese fishermen, arresting scores of them, seizing their boats, taking their catch, generally harassing them on the open seas.

What is a cause of this?

That's sort of the $1.4 billion question about China: Why the shift toward a bumbling, aggressive, unnecessarily triumphalist foreign policy at this point?

One theory is that the most recent generation of Chinese leaders is not as in control of the foreign policy/national security apparatus as before and as a result different bureaucracies are pursuing their interests aggressively with very little coordination at the top. Another says the leadership is completely in control, but they just believe that now is China's time to assert a more aggressive foreign policy in order to lay claim to things they have long wanted but haven't been bold enough or powerful enough to do.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. For the last ten to fifteen years, we've been used to Chinese competence on a variety of fronts, and to suddenly be confronted with two very bad years of Chinese diplomacy is shocking because we had assumed greater competence on the part of the Chinese leadership.

They're going to have a new leadership change soon, right?

Yes. And there is a theory that they've adopted a new aggressiveness because in the run-up to China's election season, leaders generally have a tendency to opt for the more aggressive, hardline domestically, cracking down on dissidents and a tough line on foreign affairs.

Who will be the new leader?

The anointed leader is Xi Jinping, who is due to become the next president in 2012. He's fifty-seven and the son of a former marshal, an acolyte of Mao, so he comes from what they call the Princelings Party, a faction of the government descended from Communist royalty. The second in command is expected to be Li Keqiang, fifty-six, who went to school at Beijing University in 1977-78, at the first moment when the colleges were reopened by Deng Xaio-ping [after being closed during the Cultural Revolution]. He has a law degree, which is unusual because so many of China's leaders are engineers (as is Xi Jinping), so he's sort of illustrative of a new type of Chinese leader.

There is a theory that the Chinese have adopted a new aggressiveness because in the run-up to China's election season, leaders generally have a tendency to opt for the more aggressive, hard-line domestically, cracking down on dissidents and a tough line on foreign affairs.

Does Washington have any favorites in this race?

Washington has had a lot of contact with both Xi and Li Keqiang. Xi will be coming to the States after Vice President Joseph Biden goes to China this year. His daughter is at Harvard. Most of the top-level daughters and sons have attended schools like Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and Yale. There's a little concern about Xi's nationalism; he made some comments in Mexico about two years ago that were quite populist and blustery. Americans are getting this type of line from almost all quarters in the Chinese government: Why are you bugging us? Look at how successful we are. We used to be your student, now we're your teacher.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been quite outspoken (Reuters) about China's human rights issues in an interview with the Atlantic and comments at the State Department.

Obama entered office on a program of effectively embracing his predecessor's China policy and wanting to build on it. That's unusual. Bill Clinton basically criticized George H.W. Bush for coddling the "butchers of Beijing," but ultimately adopted a relatively positive China policy. George W. Bush came into office criticizing Bill Clinton's policy and calling China a strategic competitor, even though Bush in the end adopted a relatively soft China policy. Obama came into office without criticizing his predecessor's China policy and basically said he wanted to build on it and make the relationship even better. In fact, the Obama administration in 2009 had an ambitious program of working with China on global warming, on cleaning up the financial mess, on dealing with Iran and North Korea, and on a lot of other issues.

The Obama administration's high expectations led them, publically at least, to deemphasize human rights as a real issue between the two countries. But when the administration realized it was not getting that much support [on Iran, North Korea, etc.], it decided, "We have to say publically what we say privately."

How bad is the human rights situation in China?

Since the Olympics in 2008, there's been a broad crackdown in China on dissent. In the last six months it has accelerated. What really put the fuel in the tank was the so-called Jasmine Revolution, which started in Tunisia, [raising] Chinese concerns that it could somehow spread to China. The Chinese really increased their crackdown starting in February.

The interesting thing about this crackdown is that in the past they would take the heads of illegal political parties and throw them into jail for long periods of time, but now the crackdown includes a wide net on almost all of China's civil society fronts. Defense lawyers have been put into detention and been interrogated; the chiefs of very non-political NGOs have been interrogated and disappeared; artists like Ai-Weiwei have been arrested. He is the most famous, and he has now been in police custody for a month. No one knows where he is. There are also extra-judicial thug squads who've been engaged in beating people. It's also expanded into Tibet, where the crackdowns began after the riots in 2008. It's a full frontal assault on civil society.

Is the situation as bad as it was in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square in 1989?

It's the worst since. We're at the point where we're equal to post-Tiananmen. But mind you, no one is being shot. There is police violence when it comes to putting down many of the generally rural demonstrations and protests, but we're not seeing bloodshed. So it is not in any way comparable to what we saw in 1989 [when hundreds were shot].

Talk about U.S. military relations with China, which has been a touchy issue.

U.S.-China military relations are always going to be a trouble spot, because the Chinese look at those as the least important part of the relationship, while the United States looks at those as one of the most important parts. So the Chinese will engage with us almost as if they're giving us a present. At this strategic meeting in Washington, the Chinese brought both civilians and military officers into the room and spoke with civilian and military counterparts of the United States in advance of the top-level military-to-military meeting in Washington next week. But the military-to-military relationship is by no means smooth, and as we move into the future and as China gets stronger, it is going to continue to be a really major trouble spot. There's a lot of concern about China in the Pentagon.

Lastly, the economic relationship. Is that going to be strained forever?

If the United States' economy remains lousy for a significant period of time, it's easy to turn China into a congressional and an executive branch whipping boy, and even a media whipping boy. It's easy to blame China for our woes. China can often help that process by doing things like not revaluing its currency, although that is less of an issue now than it was six months ago, since the currency has gone up about 5 percent and a little bit more if you add inflation. The Chinese have begun to revalue slowly. But the other issue in the relationship is that Americans need to see that we're benefiting from this great trade relationship. Our exports to China are definitely booming, [though] they're by no means close to our imports. China's investment in America has just begun, and if it starts to be much more significant, like Toyota or other Japanese auto companies, you could see the smoothing out of that relationship.

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