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The U.S. and China—Dialogue or Diatribe?

by Elizabeth C. Economy
July 19, 2011

President Barack Obama meets with His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama in the Map Room of the White House on July 16, 2011. (Pete Souza/Courtesy The White House)

Is it ritualized noise or does China really mean it?

Here is what the Chinese Foreign Ministry had to say about President Obama’s July 16 meeting with the Dalai Lama: “We demand that the U.S. side seriously consider China’s stance, immediately adopt measures to wipe out the baneful impact, stop interfering in China’s internal affairs and cease to connive and support anti-China separatist forces…such an act has grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs, hurt the feelings of the Chinese people and damaged Sino-American relations.”

Did President Obama’s meeting with the Tibetan spiritual leader really “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”? The reports of the meeting suggest two primary outcomes: President Obama telling the Dalai Lama that the United States does not support Tibetan independence, and President Obama reiterating his support for the maintenance of Tibetan culture. Both of these are supported by Beijing.

And here is what the People’s Daily had to say about the meeting between Admiral Mullen and General Chen earlier that same week, “The United States should understand that the obstacles to exchanges between the Chinese and U.S. militaries over recent years are not the lack of transparency in China’s military or the aggressive posture adopted by China. The root cause is the mentality of containment to which the United States has long clung, which lies behind its public statements. This has sometimes caused the nation to make moves threatening China’s core interests. Only a country that respects other countries can win their respect.”

The U.S. has no mentality of containment—although it probably would be fair to raise U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and reconnaissance missions off the Chinese coast as contributors to tensions in the Sino-U.S. military to military relationship. But does the Chinese government really believe that its lack of transparency and assertiveness in the South China Sea are not relevant to the challenges in military to military relations between China and the United States?

Beijing’s propensity for hyperbole and its frequent repetition of ideas and phrases that may not be relevant or even true reflect an effort both to define the terms of debate and to reinforce traditional policy thinking for domestic consumption. China’s leaders should realize, however, that they run the risk of being like the boy who cries wolf: when you keep repeating something that isn’t true, people eventually stop listening. The danger then becomes that when the wolf really does show up—when everyone really ought to listen to what Beijing says—no one will be paying attention anymore.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by RousseauC

    I think if Obama does things that upset Chinese, he is just going to get less support and cooperation from China on other issues that the US hopes China would do a favor.
    In that sense, it is not winning for Obama to meet Dalai Lama.
    As Henry Kissinger said yesterday, Obama met Dalai simply because of the domestic pressure. It means he does not really feel it’s right time to do that….He was hijacked to some extent. That’s sad politics…

  • Posted by Stephanie

    I think at this point in the broader U.S.-China relationship, especially with the establishment of mil-mil relations since Hu’s visit as fledgling as it is, Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama is becoming decreasingly provocative…China must object in public due to its own domestic pressure, but it won’t fall on its sword over another one of this. This won’t lead or create tension toward some precipice of diplomatic conflict. Similar to how arms sales to Taiwan have become increasingly symbolic?

  • Posted by Juchechosunmanse

    Who are you kidding, Ms. Economy? The U.S. has no mentality of containment when it comes to China?? It is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard! Much of America’s Asia-Pacific policy is centered around enlisting help from its allies and various countries to contain China.

    It would be silly to deny that the United States has long considered China a competitor and rival at best and an enemy/adversary at worst, everyone knows it! Since the founding of the People’s Republic the US has been engaging in all sorts of activities and policies seeking to contain and undermine the PRC and its interests, regionally and globally. The combination of the following factors explains why the US seeks to contain China:

    (1) China’s non-democratic, authoritarian nature

    (2) China’s non-Western, non-Judeo-Christian (alien) nature, which triggers uneasiness among Americans and westerners at large

    (3) The sheer size and perceived strengths of China and the fact that China is perceived to have the ability to challenge America’s global primacy

    It is absurd that Ms. Economy made it sound like the distrust between Chinese and American military originated from China’s “lack of transparency and assertiveness in the South China Sea”. The US has been enlisting help from countries such as Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, Thailand, Singapore, Phillippines and recently Vietnam to keep China in check. China is surrounded by American military bases, both permanent (like the ones in Japan and South Korea) and floating ones (aircraft carrier battle groups sailing near Chinese waters). Does Ms. Economy seriously expect the Chinese to be at ease over these? What would the Americans do if the situation were to reverse, say China were to constantly contain and undermine the US and its interests? Speaking of the PLA’s alleged lack of transparency, one must keep in mind that the PLA is facing a hostile military that is superior in almost every regard, a formidable force that views the PLA as a major enemy. Being the much weaker one of the two, the Chinese would be foolish to reveal everything to the Americans and let themselves become a sitting duck.

    I do agree though with Ms. Economy that China’s never-ending vocal protests and whining are becoming increasingly ineffective and useless. It is very childish. Instead of being a cry-baby, China should fight back with calculated and well-thoughtout moves. China needs more actions and less words.

  • Posted by James Chan Lee

    Ms. Economy:
    You state that the USA has “no mentality of containment”!
    This statement hardly squares with the fact that the USA has hundreds of overseas military bases, Seven or Eight Naval fleets and a vast network of defence pacts with China’s neighbours. The world has changed since 1950, unlike the USA’s military presence in Asia and elsewhere. best regards James

  • Posted by CM Yeung

    Mao Zedong told Richard Nixon during his 1972 visit, “Don’t listen to what we say, just watch what we do.” It holds true today as much as in 39 years ago. Indeed, this has been the modus operandi of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949. I surely hope the policy makers in Washington possess more sophistication and diplomatic common sense than Ms. Economy has shown here.

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