Skip to main content

In Dealing with Beijing, Overambition Tends to Backfire

John Lee

In 1981, a business book appeared that proved to be a bestseller for the next two decades. Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury advocated non-adversarial negotiation. Key principles included “focusing on the problem rather than the person”, negotiating using principles rather than exerting pressure, and focusing on win-win solutions in any negotiation.

Lauded by the sophisticated and the enlightened, the book serves as a good summary of the nuanced approach favoured by Kevin Rudd and US President Barack Obama in managing relations with China. It also largely explains why the US and Australia’s China policy has been less successful than it could have been.

In international affairs, in addition to offering incentives, using power and leverage to create pressure in order to restrain and influence the behaviour of other states – especially those that do not share the same strategic objectives or political values – is the traditional approach. This was the unimaginative but effective strategy tacitly adopted by the Howard government and by the Bush administration in its second term. Both enthusiastically supported China’s economic rise but significantly deepened strategic relations with allies and partners such as Japan, South Korea, most of Southeast Asia and, increasingly, India, all of which seek economic co-operation with China but remain profoundly suspicious of Beijing’s intentions. Both these administrations accepted that there were severe limitations to achieving co-operation on bilateral and regional issues with authoritarian China and hosed down expectations domestically and in Beijing that an enhanced era of collaboration was imminent.

In contrast, Rudd and Obama were much more China-centric and took a more ambitious and optimistic view of the possibilities for collaboration with China.

One of the first decisions the Labor government made was to unilaterally withdraw from the Quadrilateral Initiative, which included India, in order to appease China. During his first trip to East Asia that did not include Japan, Rudd delivered a speech in Mandarin to Chinese students from Peking University. He ended it by offering Australia and himself as China’s “true friend”, a zhengyou, who offers “unflinching advice and counsels restraint” in areas of difference and disagreement.

Similarly, Obama anointed himself the US’s first Pacific President who would open up an era of enhanced co-operation between the US and China based on engagement and mutual respect. In particular, Obama explicitly extended China a much more equal global status, arguing that little could be achieved without Chinese co-operation.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took human rights off the agenda as early as February last year and Obama subsequently sought Beijing’s good will in negotiations before his November visit by postponing arms sales to Taiwan and a meeting with the Dalai Lama.

In following the “getting to yes” manual, both also adopted the prescription to focus on the problem rather than the person. In this context, Rudd and Obama pursued a wishful fiction that the barriers towards genuine partnership, trust and lasting co-operation on issues such as the economy, strategic and military competition, North Korea and Iran had little to do with the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on political power or China’s state-led political economy.

Furthermore, Rudd’s earlier accommodating rhetoric and actions helped give China the misleading impression that Canberra was moving closer to Beijing’s sphere of influence in Asia and that capital from Chinese state-owned enterprises would be welcome and no longer created suspicion among Australian regulatory authorities. When these proved to be false, Beijing reacted furiously. As Australian anger and Chinese defensiveness in the saga of Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu shows, vast differences between political, legal and economic systems and values will almost certainly lead to tensions.

These gestures are designed to remove tensions or ignore existing concerns in order to deepen the bilateral relationship with China and increase the chances of securing a better result in negotiations with Beijing. Critics in Australia and the US have subsequently chided their leaders for coddling a potential foe and rejecting friends. In return, China has offered nothing in terms of concessions sought by Canberra and Washington, and bilateral relations with Beijing are worse than during the less ambitious Bush and Howard years. Canberra and Washington have lost credibility with partners such as Tokyo and New Delhi (although it can be re-established) and China has emerged with an enhanced perception of its place in Asia and its leverage over the US and allies such as Australia.

Rudd and Obama cannot be blamed for all aspects of recent tensions with China. The likelihood is that many serious problems with China will emerge no matter the approach taken, as various factions of pragmatic hardliners have been in power since the post-Tiananmen clean-out of liberals. But this is precisely the reason why adopting a “getting to yes” approach should occur only between close strategic and political partners.

Rudd and Obama have learned the harsh lesson that appealing to common principles and arriving at a win-win solution assumes two things that do not yet apply to China: first, that power and influence between both countries is not a zero-sum game; and second, that the primary barrier to greater co-operation is misunderstanding rather than disparate values and interests. With Hu awaiting sentencing from a closed court and Washington duelling over issues such as Taiwan, Tibet, Google and the Chinese currency, the rhetoric out of Canberra and Washington is already harsher. But a simple change in style is not the solution. It requires both political leaders to appreciate what 19th-century Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck referred to as “the art of the possible”.

It’s time to lower expectations for Chinese co-operation, look first to friends and co-ordinate potential sources of leverage over Beijing. Paradoxically, if this is done, relations with China will likely improve.

Related Articles

Will Europe's Energy Crisis Trigger Another Wave of Refugees from Ukraine?

Mónika Palotai & Kristóf György Veres

As summer months kick in and air conditioners are cranked up, heating is hardly on anyone's mind. Yet energy scarcity in Eastern Europe coupled with m...

Continue Reading

Build a Fleet that Contests Every Inch

Bryan Clark

China’s coast guard and maritime militia have mounted what essentially is an insurgency in the East and South China Seas for nearly 15 years, buildi...

Continue Reading

The Significance of China’s Fujian Aircraft Carrier

Patrick M. Cronin

Eighty years after aircraft carriers became the capital ship of great seafaring nations, China's third carrier is making waves. Fujian, named for the ...

Continue Reading