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Hu’s Real Agenda

John Lee

Chinese President Hu Jintao went to Washington to help forge a “new era of strategic mutual trust” and “advance bilateral cooperation in all fields,” according to China’s state news service Xinhua. Editorials in state newspapers such as the People’s Daily and Global Times suggest that President Hu’s broader agenda is to introduce a framework for the U.S.-China relationship that can build “mutual respect.” This all sounds positive after a turbulent bilateral relationship throughout 2010. But what Beijing sees as a “new framework for cooperation” is really one that eventually involves Washington stepping back from its longstanding strategic role in East Asia.

The important thing to realize about Beijing’s world view is that it is far less confident about terminal American decline and its own strengths than many people assume. The state media might frequently carry articles boasting about the impressive rise in Chinese power and influence, and by implication America’s relative decline. But its leaders know that modern China is a strong and rich state overseeing a poor and potentially weak country. Still immensely distrusted in the region, China’s strategic documents evince a much more cautious and wary tone.

For example, in my recent survey of more than 100 documents and articles written by senior Chinese officials and by its top strategists, a significant number showed a sophisticated appreciation of the enduring sources of American strength and influence—from its economic and military might and alliances in the region, to continued dominance in global and regional institutions, to its still formidable and unmatched soft power. Of these sources, most of which were written after the global financial crisis from which America is still recovering, more than three-quarters were about how best to bind, dilute or circumvent what one writer called the “omnipresent American menace.”

All this has direct relevance to President Hu’s state visit. For Washington, improving the diplomatic relationship is important. But that’s only because America ultimately wants to nail down Chinese cooperation on a number of specific issues: maintaining pressure on North Korea and Iran over proliferation issues, a binding agreement on settling disputes in the South China Sea, revaluation of the Chinese currency and others.

In contrast to America’s instrumentalist view of high level meetings, President Hu’s grand-sounding new framework for cooperation is about two things.

First, as the weaker and more isolated power, China’s muscular diplomacy throughout 2010 has not served its interests well. The Chinese leader is desperate to drain the fuel from the fire in U.S.-China diplomacy that flared up constantly last year. These are behind the platitudes such as mutual respect, mutual trust and mutual understanding that were repeated by Chinese diplomats and media throughout the visit. This is not about paving the way toward cooperation, as President Barack Obama would hope, but simply aimed at avoiding overt tension and renewing the credibility of China’s “peaceful rise” thesis.

In this light, it is not surprising that Chinese state media are publishing somewhat dog-eared articles and editorials on the importance of a stable U.S.-China relationship for China to continue its economic rise. Notably, the image of Presidents Obama and Hu sitting together in serious but calm discussion is a priceless opportunity for Beijing to push ahead with its “peaceful rise” narrative.

A second and more proactive aspect of President Hu’s new framework for cooperation is securing American agreement for the concept of “mutual respect for differences,” once again something repeatedly pushed by Chinese diplomats and media outlets leading up to the visit. Far from another flaccid platitude, this is all about gradually encouraging America and the region’s democratic community to accept the legitimacy of China’s authoritarian rise in Asia and not seek to restrain it.

Beijing has long been aware that Washington and other key Asian capitals are eager for genuine political reform in China even as economic integration speeds up. Indeed, many in places such as America, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea are explicitly relying on the transformative power of economic liberalism to speed up political change in China, as occurred in the latter three. In the longer term, with political differences considered less relevant, the Chinese Communist Party would like much less American presence and strategic involvement in Asia.

China genuinely doesn’t want conflict with a much more powerful America—which is why its muscular diplomacy throughout 2010 will be wound back in 2011. But finding a subtle framework to ease America out of Asia is a smart move. Chinese strategists correctly figure that there is probably no such thing as an effective Asian balance against China without America. India could well rise as spectacularly as China over the next few decades, Japan might find a permanent solution to its malaise, and the Middle Kingdom could stagnate. But unless all these things happen simultaneously, China—in the absence of America—will simply be too big to restrain.

This brings us back to Mr. Hu’s trip to Washington. In addition to the Chinese framework for cooperation, China is generally happy to attend high-level summits and engage in dialogues that focus on processes and other functional agreements. But contrary to American hopes, it does not want to be pinned down on specific commitments over contentious economic and strategic issues. After all, more powerful countries set the agenda, and Beijing believes that genuine cooperation at this stage is simply promoting the interests of the American superpower.

When President Hu leaves American soil on Saturday, both sides will be hailing the improvement in diplomatic relations between the two countries. This is correct. But it is not the same as cooperation.

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