The U.S. and China Think They Can Dance

Given that U.S.-China relations appear to be spotty at the moment, it was a coup of sorts to convince Chinese President Hu Jintao to attend the U.S.-sponsored nuclear security summit in Washington next week. Last month, an administration official confided, it was unlikely that China would attend (and that without China's high-level participation, the deliverables -- diplo-speak for "what gets done" -- would be light). There's meanwhile the problems of China's currency (is it being artificially manipulated to the detriment of U.S. producers?), its trade practices, human rights, Taiwan, and cyber-espionage. From the standpoint of U.S. policy-makers, though, the most pressing issue is Iran. The U.S. wants tough U.N. sanctions and needs China's approval; China, for many reasons, has balked. And balked. And wound up as if to pitch...and balked.
There are many sclerotic arteries for diplomatic conversation, but there are also clear ones, and both countries recognize that they can disagree and agree at the same time. There's no binary: no either or. China can be a potential threat to our national security and it can be a strategic partner. In the administration's eyes, engaging China means treating China as an independent adult and recognizing what it needs from the U.S. "That's the fundamental theory of our China policy -- that we can disagree on certain issues and still work together on areas of common interest," an administration official said.
(For a detailed discussion about the U.S.-Chinese relationship, see James Fallows recently in conversation with Damian Ma of the Eurasia Group.)
From China's point of view, it seems that maintaining a harmonious relationship with the United States is paramount. It took the Obama administration a while to come to grips with this reality, given how uneasily China has adjusted to the post-Bush world order. China wants to be a global leader, but doesn't really want to assume responsibility for global affairs -- it doesn't like to be called out on climate change, for example, or hassled publicly about trade. (Per capita, it's still a poor country.) "There is fragility in its arrogance," the New America Foundation's Steve Clemons says. "One of their big national security priorities is that they want to be a rising power in a status quo world where the U.S. carries most of the water for problems."

The operating principle of the administration's China policy is one of pushes and hugs. The U.S. is coming to believe that the long-term relationship will depend more on hugging than pushing, but pushes are necessary for action items like Iran. So the fundamental tactical question is: how much push should there be?

NB: Note that the administration does not like to frame its China policy around the concept of spreading democracy. That's not because Obama doesn't want to see a democratic China. It's because the argument has become stale. The administration wants to find other, more productive ways to encourage democracy in China without resorting to hectoring and without seeming to encourage internal dissent.

Thumbnail photo credit: Pete Souza/White House flickr
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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