Thursday, February 12, 2009

Sino-American Fist-Clenching

. Thursday, February 12, 2009

Hillary Clinton will make her first diplomatic trip to Asia, including a stop in China. This break from tradition -- American diplomats typically visit Europe first -- is intended to signal America's willingness to engage China on a range of issues. China, however, is a bit reticent:

Mrs. Clinton is expected to build on the Bush administration's foundations in dealing with China. Under President George W. Bush, the U.S. established two formal engagement channels with Beijing in recent years -- the "senior dialogue" focused on security issues and a "strategic economic dialogue" led by former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.

Mrs. Clinton has said the Obama administration will seek "a more comprehensive approach" to engaging Beijing, without specifying the issues to be addressed. China analysts said these comments have piqued the interest of Chinese leaders who fear they could signal more U.S. attention to Chinese human rights, Tibet and Beijing's support for dictatorial governments in Myanmar and Sudan.

Trade is another potential flash point. During the campaign, President Barack Obama was critical of some Chinese trade practices, and his treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, has accused China of manipulating its currency.

The discipline of international relations (including IPE) often boils down to studying difficulties in policy coordination between states. This is one example. The Bush administration was often derided for its strident tone and lack of diplomatic skills. Indeed, the Bush adminstration's diplomatic failures became a major issue for the Obama campaign in the last election. All Obama had to say was "I'm gonna do it differently than Bush did it" and that was enough.

The substantive Obama campaign rhetoric on foreign policy basically boiled down to "we're going to talk to people, and we're going to listen to people, and we're gonna have diplomacy, and then everybody's gonna get along with us". Unfortunately, it's not that easy; you can ask as sweetly as you like, but states are still going to resist conforming to your preferred policy unless there is some benefit for them. It is absurd to think that the Chinese will strengthen their human rights policies, end support of the genocidal regime in the Sudan, or invest in tons of "green" infrastructure in the middle of a economic slowdown if we just ask nicely enough. Those sorts of movements, if they are possible at all, will require major concessions from the United States in exchange, or significant leverage. Right now, we don't have much leverage over China, and we're not in a position to make many concessions, so the U.S. and China will just have to live with an uneasy symbiosis in the short- to medium-run.


Sino-American Fist-Clenching
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