Why China-U.S. ties are falling apart: a retrospective of changes in Sino-American relations (one)

By He Qinglian on November 25, 2011 

There are signs that the Sino-American wedding bed is quickly falling apart, and no remedy is possible in the near future. Apart from U.S. President Barack Obama's tough talk that criticized China for not abiding by international rules and its “not being invited” to Trans-Pacific Partnership, there was an even more important directional indicator: the annual report from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In that report forty-three recommendations had been listed, the first of which was: the U.S. Congress should commission the National Security Council to carry out assessments of the current China policy.

It drew my attention that William Reinsch, chairman of that Commission, pointed out specifically that the U.S. had come to realize it was unrealistic to expect China to fully integrate into the Western economic and political system. This statement showed that the U.S. political illusion about China had dashed.

To sort out how the relationship between China and the United States wound up step by step to the way it is today, in particular when recalling U.S. President Barack Obama's diplomacy toward China in the three years after he entered the White House, one would surely be filled with mixed emotions.

In the first year his presidency, Barack Obama visited China and came back empty-handed; public opinion in Europe and the United States had it that he “kowtowed to Beijing”. This time, during the APEC Summit in Hawaii, Obama made some tough remarks on China, and international media said he “grabbed China by the collar”. 

From “kowtow” to “grabbing the collar”, what happened in these three years?

It is necessary to first go through briefly the American factors that determine how the ties between China and the United States would be. In the U.S., there are at least three political forces that have influence on White House policy toward China. 

The first force, comprising the Treasury and the Department of Commerce, gives top priority to bilateral economic and trade relations between the two countries, and represents immediate interests and needs of the United States. Supporters of this force are mainly multinational enterprises of the U.S. financial and industrial sectors.  

The second force is represented by the Department of State. Starting from Bill Clinton's human rights diplomacy, this force has been hoping to lead China into the Western system through contact, persuasion, influence and guidance. This and the first force constitute the main body of “Panda Huggers”, which has been the group that dominated U.S. policy toward China in recent years. However, in the past two or three years, the financial and the industrial sectors changed their attitude toward China and frictions between the two countries increase by the day.  

The third force, known as “Panda Bashers”, evolved from the blue team and the dragon slayers and is represented by the Pentagon, which stresses geopolitical competition. For a long time in the past, this force appeared to be in decline both in its supporters and influence, it gained momentum slightly only in the last two years. Meanwhile, corresponding geopolitical changes have taken place in the Asia-Pacific region: the U.S. Pacific Fleet had had to retreat to the second Pacific island chain in mid-noughties of this century; it went back to the first island chain last year at the request of Southeast Asian countries.

Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall in the 1990s, the relationship between China and the United States became the most important of diplomacy in both countries. Whether it was the Clinton administration or that of George W. Bush, U.S. policy toward China appeared to have started low and ended high.

In 1992, Bill Clinton promised during his presidential campaign that he would not be “coddling dictators from Baghdad to Beijing”. But later he became an active advocate for countries to lift their bans against China after June-4th. In the face of media ridicule, Bill Clinton could only use “creative ambiguity strategy” as self-defense. 
When running for presidency, Clinton's successor George W. Bush positioned China as a U.S. "strategic competitor". But after 9/11, he had to develop with China a “Strategic partnership” due to anti-terrorism needs. Under attacks from both the Panda huggers and dragon slayers, Bush took to the middle path, and was called the “panda hedger”.

Contrary to the “start low and end high” curve of his two predecessors, Barack Obama appears to have a U.S.-China relationship that “started high and ended low”. Before entering the White House, Barack Obama had no fixed, tendentious opinion on China (including the Taiwan Strait relations). He never said that China is an autocratic country, nor did he promise to take actions to guide China toward democracy. After being elected, Barack Obama created two "firsts" in U.S. China policy: he is the first president to have taken fully into account suggestions from China's “think tank”. His “China policy wish-list” was drafted from “China's perspective” by “China Institute of International Studies”, at the invitation of American Institute of East and West. That list suggested that China and the United States should establish partnership in five areas: economics, counter-terrorism, non-proliferation, green, and trans-Pacific.  

Barack Obama is also the first U.S. president to visit China within the first year of his presidency. In that visit, Obama openly expressed that the United States positively accept China's peaceful rise, that the country does not seek to contain China, and its willingness to share with China part of the “leadership responsibility” so as to get in return mutual strategic guarantees between China and America. He hoped that China's rise would not challenge the interests of the United States and instead become a positive factor in promoting them.

But Barack Obama's hand of friendship extended to China did not get in return Beijing's friendship. Instead, Beijing showed Obama its disdain in all sorts of ways. When President Obama visited China, the Chinese authorities applied control measures that were much more rigid than when Bill Clinton and George W. Bush visited the country.

In a bid to show that Obama's visiting itinerary was not completely controlled by Beijing, the United States named Southern Weekend to interview Obama. Although Xiang Xi, the editor-at-large of Southern Weekend was a cadre that the CCP trusted and sent to supervise the media outlet, and the interview itself didn't cross any line, Beijing still punished Xiang Xi by removing him from his duty.

In December 2009 during G-24 meeting at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, China “forgot” its commitment to be America's “Green Partner” and to support the United States in issues like global climate and energy conservation. It even disregarded basic diplomatic etiquette, and sent a vice-ministerial level official to talk arrogantly to president Obama, a behavior that was extremely rude. 
All this aroused Americans’ antipathy against the Chinese government. 

By January 2010, this accumulated antipathy finally reached the breakout point on the Google incident. Since then, the wedding bed of China and the United States began to fall apart, and a series of clashes between the two countries ensued. From the Google incident, arms sales to Taiwan, to Barack Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, all those that the United States had once set aside temporarily to take care of the feelings of the Chinese government were now rolled out in succession. 

These incidents, with the combination of the trade protectionism that began to rise in 2010, and the strong dissatisfaction the investors felt toward the investment environment in China, resulted in increasing difficulties facing Sino-American relationship. China’s reaction to these was very heated. On February 4, 2010, a CCP mouthpiece Guangming Daily published an article: “Obama, 1.3 billion Chinese people despise you”, setting the first example of China’s state media abusing a U.S. president since the establishment of Sino-American diplomatic relations. 

At that time, the U.S. business community in China, which had always been careful not to talk about politics, were also pessimistic about the prospects of Sino-American relationship, which was even listed by Eurasia Group as number one of the world's top ten risks in 2010
With these many clashes broke out, Beijing did actually think of ways to try to restore the Sino-US relations after it had calmed down. Although China has reached second place in total GDP, the country showed gestures more modest than ever. First, State Councilor for Foreign Affairs Dai Bingguo published in December 2010 a long article which theme was, “It is a myth to say that China would overtake the United States and dominate the world.” 

Later on, an article entitling “Distorted Image of China's National Security” was published under the name of Xiong Guangjie, honorary president of the Chinese International Foundation for Strategic Research, and former deputy chief of staff of the PLA. It reprimanded some people inside China for an overestimate of their own strength, and their advocacy of “holding sword while doing business”, which “deepen the outside world’s misunderstanding of China.” 

In May 2011, PLA Chief of General Staff Chen Bingde visited the United States. He reiterated that China “has no intention to challenge the United States”, and that it only wants the U.S. to respect its core interests. Although this rapid u-turn from speaking of its “rise” to toning down and addressing itself as a “would-be boss” is a result of grave domestic political and in particular economic situation; the hope of rapprochement with the United States was also expressed very clearly.

However, the rise and fall of the forces that influence U.S. China policy is not what the White House has control over. Regardless of what perception a President may have of China, that personal preference could not be allowed to influence U.S. foreign policy. Just as former President George W. Bush had to form with China a “strategic partnership” to fight terrorism as the situation so demanded, even though he never liked autocratic China. Lang Hsien-Ping recently wrote an article, “We have underestimated Barack Obama’s trickery”, in it are signs that he failed to see the rise and fall of the panda huggers and the dragon slayers are what truly shape the U.S. China policy.

For follow-up analysis, please see “U.S. capital reflux, the crucial bond between China and the United States began to loosen—a retrospective of changes in Sino-American relations (two).