Thursday, July 7, 2011

Sino-US relations in a time of transition

Jul 6, 2011

By Frank Lavin

I HAVE had the privilege of spending much of my professional life dealing with China and China-related matters. Maybe that is what makes me, in a broad sense, an optimist about China and US-China relations. But the size of China, as well as the size and complexity of the United States, means that this relationship may become the most complicated diplomatic relationship in the world.

China is now, by virtue of economic success and other elements of state policy, more consequential than it has ever been. This presents a challenge to China and the US in terms of foreign policy.

The core of foreign policy management for China is external equilibrium: How do you achieve your goals in a peaceful setting? But the policy decisions are driven by internal equilibrium. In other words, a primary determinant of China's foreign policy decisions is domestic political and bureaucratic requirements.

Let me touch on five things that constrain China's policy formulation: internal cohesion, personalities, silos, amplification and the Internet.

The No. 1 criterion in the Chinese government is internal cohesion. One could argue that there is essentially one question during a job interview with the Chinese government, and it is a very simple one: Are you one of us? A capable Chinese government official essentially spends his entire life demonstrating that his answer to this question is 'yes'. Life is a job interview.

The raucous nature of the US political process might strike the Chinese as perplexing. In China, you must be able to demonstrate that you will be a responsible member of the team. The first question is not how capable you are or how creative you are or what your ideas are. The first question is: Are you one of us?

This does not always get you the best outcome, and it militates against people who want to try a slightly different direction. Thus, China does not have much in the way of bottom-up experimentation. And people have a need to demonstrate to a broader audience that they are part of the team.

A related phenomenon is the end of the personality-led system and the emergence of a bureaucratic state in China. In some respects, this could be reassuring because of the excesses of historic personality-led systems, but it can also augur a foreign policy drift because it can require a strong personality at the top to help shape outcomes that are in China's best interests.

Think for a second what classic international relations theory teaches about ascendant powers: that if you are a country on the rise, it is best for you to defer challenges and problems for as long as possible. There is no strong argument for prematurely forcing an issue if your capabilities are on the upswing.

Yet when we look at the issues that have bubbled up over the last year or two, it looks as if there is almost a deliberate pattern of surfacing issues that did not need to be surfaced: harassment of US ships in the South China Sea, the overly hostile reaction to US arms sales to Taiwan, some of the un-neighbourly remarks by Chinese officials to Asean foreign ministers, the ramming of a Japanese Coast Guard vessel by a Chinese fishing boat. Any one of these actions from the Chinese side could have been stopped by a dominant personality but, unfortunately, I think, for China, what transpired over the past few years was a series of arguably minor steps that cumulatively created a perception of a country taking an aggressive posture in the region.

There are different theories as to why China abandoned its charm offensive which, to my mind, helped it a great deal in South-east Asia. I believe there has been a combination of factors, some of which I have articulated above, along with the role of silos and the amplification effect.

By silos, I am referring to the fact that the Chinese government is more compartmentalised than other large governments, with ministries responsible for relatively narrow areas and without many inter-agency mechanisms for coordination.

It is not always easy in the Chinese system to think through and argue the costs and benefits of various government initiatives. There is a particular challenge if there are short-term or nominal benefits for one ministry and perhaps long-term costs borne by another ministry. For example, if a People's Liberation Army (PLA) naval vessel harasses a foreign ship in the South China Sea, that might help the naval command demonstrate that it is committed, that it is part of the team. However, this action could work very much to the long-term detriment of China's foreign policy. Still, the Foreign Ministry cannot countermand a PLA navy decision.

There is also an amplification effect, by which I mean that people tend not just to echo established policy but also to amplify it in order to signal their allegiance to that policy. Thus, bad policy gets amplified through the system, not toned down as one would hope.

Take what transpired in China after activist Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. From the Chinese point of view, the award was a severe public insult, and their starting point was they wanted to respond in kind, by criticising Mr Liu and the Nobel Committee.

But how did that help or hurt them? What other steps did they take and what were the eventual consequences of this for China's foreign policy? After the public criticism, the Chinese authorities conjured up their own international prize, the Confucian Peace Prize, and awarded it to a Taiwanese dignitary who had not even been informed that he had won. It was a somewhat embarrassing moment, I believe, for the people who orchestrated that event and even worse for Beijing - it just kept the issue alive. The amplification effect made matters worse.

The emergence of the Internet in China provides more latitude for discussion than we have ever seen there. But it may also serve as a constraint on policy because Internet chatter in China tends to be a bit unbalanced. On some issues, open criticism of government policy is prohibited so the audience receives only one point of view.

Beyond that, the Internet itself tends to be a medium which promotes comments that tend to be emotional and maybe even a bit nationalistic. So, instead of thoughtful examination of an issue, you can get this cheerleading effect.

Some of this emotional response is to be expected because it is the Internet, not a graduate school seminar. But I do think that, cumulatively, this kind of emotionalism does not help China move to more productive outcomes in foreign policy.

My conclusion is that China and the US face twin challenges when it comes to foreign policy management. As China emerges into this new major power role, it is going to enhance its own prospects for a successful foreign policy, showing the subtlety and restraint that all great powers have to show, and I think this is difficult given China's domestic political environment. For its part, the US needs to display flexibility and goodwill in trying to work with China.

I think the biggest mistake China could make in foreign policy would be to simply assert its goals without regard to other parties. An assertion of a point of view is not the same as the adoption of policies that will help you reach your objectives. Sometimes, the two concepts are blurred in China. We can understand that, domestically, they may be somewhat the same. You have a top-down system and, if you assert a domestic policy goal, that is an important step to achieving it. But it does not work that way in foreign policy as there are other parties involved.

The United States has responsibilities as well. I think the biggest mistake it could make in dealing with China would be to view China through a deterministic lens, that China's economic rise inevitably means hostility. Given the size and complexities of the two countries and the many differences between the two governments, it is no surprise that there are different points of view and even occasional points of friction, but I also see significant progress in the relationship. If there is as much positive movement over the next 40 years as in the past 40, the leaders in both countries should be congratulated for their statesmanship.

The writer is chairman of public affairs for Edelman Asia Pacific. He was US ambassador to Singapore from 2001 to 2005 and was undersecretary for international trade at the US Department of Commerce, where he was lead negotiator for China. This article is edited from a speech he delivered at US think-tank, The Heritage Foundation, on April 20.


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