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Why U.S.-China Cooperation Is Proving So Elusive

John Lee

When people visit China these days, they invariably leave impressed by how diverse the country is. The rise of a pluralistic community with varying and competing interests was what the U.S. wanted when Bill Clinton first welcomed China into the World Trade Organization in 2001. In the long term, the rise of a diverse China might well bring about political reform—a reasoning and hope nursed by every American leader since Clinton. But paradoxically, and with President Hu Jintao currently in Washington, it is the emergence of different centers of power in Chinese politics and society that is behind American frustrations with China’s apparent inability or unwillingness to rise as a “responsible stakeholder.”

Decentralization and the rise of pluralism in China have occurred alongside the retention of an authoritarian political structure under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This means that the most ferocious and important competition is taking place within the CCP and among the Party’s 80 million members. Even though intraparty democracy allows different voices and interests to prevail, it is also one important reason why the “era of cooperation” that President Barack Obama is so desperately seeking between the two countries will remain elusive.

In the eras of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, these two figures were the tigers who dominated Chinese politics. But the shift from strong front men to a multitiered power structure has also led to a fragmentation in Chinese politics. Chinese foreign policy, for example, is now a matter of push and shove between the Politburo, influential figures in the Ministries of Commerce and Defense, and senior generals in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Trade and economic policy is a contest between these same entities, with the Ministry of Public Security thrown into the mix. A more recent development has been the rise of high-level influence from the boards of China’s huge state-owned companies, such as China National Petroleum Corp. and Chinalco, in foreign, trade and economic policies.

In some respects, this information is nothing new. Since the Jiang Zemin era (1993-2003), when political power became increasingly institutionalized and diffused among CCP entities and individuals, we have known Chinese policies and decisions are made within a black box. Now, there are more competing elements inside it. But there is a further dimension to the CCP’s version of democracy: in established liberal democracies, ultimate authority still rests with the government even if it is being pulled in manifold directions by powerful groups. In China, it is fundamentally unclear whether the government—let alone President Hu or Premier Wen Jiabao—is actually granted authority by the CCP to make final decisions.

Indeed, in the post-Tiananmen period, the appearance of unity and consensus decisionmaking rather than leadership is the more important and valued political commodity in Beijing. It follows, then, that Chinese leaders lack the institutional authority to make decisions that affect these other centers of power.

The fragmentation, if not paralysis, of Chinese decisionmaking has been evident in the past two years. For example, PLA figures and board representatives of China Inc. with their eye on seabed resources in the South China Sea were describing Beijing’s claims in those waters as part of the country’s “core interest” several years before a government official allegedly used the term to U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg in March 2010. The PLA Navy’s spats with Tokyo, Seoul and Southeast Asian capitals over maritime interests throughout the previous year were seemingly initiated and led by the PLA—with the civilian government left to mop up the diplomatic fallout.

But the issue that perhaps best encapsulated Beijing’s incapacity to act was the lead-up to Copenhagen’s U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP15) in December 2009. President Obama had left Beijing a month earlier believing that the U.S. and China were poised to come to a deal on capping global and national carbon emissions at COP15. But the Ministry of Commerce and prominent executives within the Chinese business elite were adamantly against imposing carbon targets, while the Ministry of Public Security had also warned against accepting invasive international inspections of carbon emissions. Provincial officials had already told Beijing that they were incapable of reliably enforcing any ambitious carbon monitoring and reduction scheme. Unsurprisingly, a disappointed but naive American President was left frustrated after the summit.

U.S.China relations have done best when dealing with functional and technical agreements that do not offend the interests of any of China’s competing factions. Setting up the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue has been one fine example. But President Obama should not expect agreement on issues that transgress these pluralistic interests-such as climate change, Iran and North Korea—as these will most likely reach dead ends. These realities mean that whoever is leading China is not a dominant leader with real power, but a figure riding a streak of tigers often pulling in different directions. The role of the Chinese President is not to give these tigers direction, but keep them from pulling Beijing—and the CCP—apart.

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