Standing Up to China, the Obama Way

China's recent passive-aggressive behavior on the world stage is unfortunate but not unexpected. President Obama is handling the PRC's non-collaboration with great skill and savvy. He realizes the Middle Kingdom's ancient cultural imperatives and contemporary geo-political objectives dictate a balance of caution and steely firmness. If he stays the course, push-me-pull-you tension between China and the West will continue. But strains will not erupt into full-blown crisis.

Global Engagement, Timeless Truths

China's engagement with the world is driven by three truths. First, calls for "constructive engagement" will yield little if ties are perceived to violate Chinese interests. Despite the "One World, One Dream" sloganeering at the Beijing Olympics, warm and fuzzy notions of international brotherhood mean nothing. Issues must be framed and resolved pragmatically, as win-win opportunities. Everything -- everything-- in the PRC is a means to an end. And the most important end in China is continued economic growth, the lynchpin of both domestic "harmony" and global respect.

Second, in the Middle Kingdom, "stability" is sublime. Gradualism, often imperceptible, is golden. The central government believes there are two great dangers lurking on the landscape. They are: a) unemployment or inflation triggered by abrupt shifts in macro-economic policy (e.g., sudden currency appreciation) and b) perceptions of affronts to Chinese territorial sovereignty -- i.e., "unity" -- a sacred moral absolute. If the West pursues confrontation, it will trigger a deeply-rooted anxiety of centrifugal disintegration, and the sky will fall. If not, China will continue to behave in a "ruthlessly incremental" manner. It will, with empirical precision, test the limits of new-found economic prestige. But it will not upset the apple cart. (China has never been an "expansionist" power. Even at the zenith of imperial clout, it controlled pan-Asian trade through economic "tributaries," not military conquest.)

Third, and fortunately, China knows its ascent will not continue without Western complicity. No matter how successful the central government is in rebalancing the economy toward domestic consumption, exports to Western markets, which have fueled more than 60% of economic expansion since 1990, will determine growth rates for decades to come. Even the military acknowledges armed conflict with the United States would strike a fatal blow to China's "peaceful rise." Importantly, China has always productively engaged with other societies -- from Indian Buddhism to American capital markets, absorbing new influences and applying them in Chinese contexts. After the Great Leap Backwards -- thirty years of economic and social disaster triggered by post-Liberation isolation -- it knows walls, at least outside cyberspace, are counterproductive. As one street smart sixty-year-old confided, "We're afraid of not having any friends." In China, there is no desire, even amongst reactionary military factions, to become divorced from global forces of progress.

China's 21st Century Anxiety

The government's intractability on a number of issues -- opacity on currency reform; reversion to platitudes of six-party "talks" after recent North Korean military provocation; hysterical reaction to Hillary Clinton's assertion of American interest in the South China sea; castigation of countries attending Liu Xiaobo's Nobel peace prize ceremony; turning a blind eye to both Sudanese sponsorship of genocide in Darfur and Iran's nuclear weapons program; over-the-top grand standing after America's weapon sales to Taiwan -- can all be understood in the context of China's timeless protective, don't-rock-my-boat modus operandi.

Twenty-first century phenomena also reinforce traditional "go slow" obstinacy. The country stands on an unfamiliar threshold of super power status but has not figured out how to apply its weight. China knows it is not in a position to supplant the United States, a society rooted in a vastly different world view, in terms of hegemonic or cultural influence. Furthermore, the expansion of an economically-vested Chinese middle class and "petite bourgeoisie" challenges social cohesion, ensuring continued focus on domestic issues. These stresses militate against diplomatic adventurism; the country will neither attempt overt power grabs nor be reborn as an Angel of Multilateralism. Yes, there will be competition for natural resources but, assuming cool heads prevail, China will not require "containment."

How to Deal With an Insecure PRC

Still, China will not receive high marks in global citizenship for some time to come. What can be done now to minimize the bombast of a newly-assertive, but still insecure, Middle Kingdom?

With the Chinese regarding the gain and loss of face as the currency of forward advancement, only the most naive can regard public hectoring to be an antidote to Middle Kingdom stubbornness. But neither should we accept the Peoples Republic's awkward attempts to impose its will on neighbors or cut its way to the front of lines.

Barack Obama's Asia strategy is perfect pitch. From Japan to Vietnam and Singapore to India, he is strengthening relationships with China's neighbors, building or rebuilding partnerships with powers that crave American presence in the region. (The call for India to join the United Nation's Security Council was a masterstroke.) He is adopting a stronger, clearer line with the Chinese on issues ranging from human rights to currency appreciation, sending unambiguous signals that the West will not be intimidated by Chinese swagger. (After recent North Korean bellicosity, the U.S. deployed an aircraft carrier to waters the Communist Party erroneously claims are within Chinese territory. This was the right thing to do.)

At the same time, he is not "encircling" China. He voices respect for Chinese aspirations and views its success as fundamental to 21st century prosperity. He has driven the creation of the G20, a much more representative economic forum than the G8, and has actively supported increasing emerging market voting power at the International Monetary Fund.

The American president is projecting pragmatic steeliness. The Chinese respect this. They know Obama is no fool. As one senior leader of a state-owned enterprise said to me, "I used to think he was nice. Then I realized he was intelligent. Now I know he's shrewd, just like Hu Jintao. Your leader is a strategist." Their guarded respect for his tactical acumen will be another counter-balance to Chinese anxious self-protection.


Will his approach work? A lot depends on the rationalism of future leaders. Xi Jinping, Hu Jintao's heir apparent, has a reputation as a man with whom we can do business. Still, given the China's gradualist impulse, "breakthroughs" will be far and few in between. Propaganda organs will never acknowledge Liu Xiaobo's Nobel achievement. China will never "scold" Iran. But progress is possible. The Yuan will appreciate but, by Western standards, at interminably slow pace, perhaps over a two-year time frame. China will further isolate North Korea if, and only if, North Korean belligerence poses an immediate threat to regional stability. If America avoids military provocation, territorial disputes in the South China Sea will not disrupt international sea lanes.

If, in the words of Teddy Roosevelt, the American people and our politicians are wise enough to "speak softly and carry a big stick," the world will be a more stable place and China will be a more accountable, more noble, global competitor.