Few foreign policy problems took the administration of US President Barack Obama more by surprise this year than the rapid escalation of tensions with China: The countries’ common approach to North Korea disintegrated, Beijing has balked at energy sanctions against Iran, the always-wary conversation between the US and Chinese militaries was cut off.
Nor has there been any real progress on the US demand that China allow its currency to appreciate. Congress is considering huge, and politically appealing, tariffs on Chinese goods before the November elections, with cautious encouragement from the White House, which thinks it can manage the process to avoid a trade war.
So somewhat belatedly, Obama decided he needed what every US president since Nixon had had: a direct back channel of communications to the Chinese leadership, a way to head off trouble or create an opening without going through the formal diplomatic exchanges.
“Think Kissinger, Scowcroft, Brzezinski, Berger,” one of Obama’s senior national security aides said the other day, ticking off the names of national security advisers who cultivated off-line access to the Chinese leadership.
“We had not done this, and it was overdue,” the administration official said, although Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), have met a half dozen times since early last year.
Early this month Obama quietly sent Thomas Donilon to Beijing, his deputy national security adviser and by many accounts the White House official with the greatest influence on the day-to-day workings of national security policy, and Lawrence Summers, who announced on Tuesday that he would leave by the end of the year as the director of the National Economic Council.
The choice of the lead emissary was noted by the Chinese: Donilon is considered a strong candidate as the future national security adviser, or perhaps White House chief of staff, if rumors are true and both jobs are soon to be vacated.
The concrete results of the meeting were slim: Exchanges between the US and Chinese militaries are about to resume, after Beijing cut them off in a fit of pique about arms sales to Taiwan and Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama.
However, officials familiar with the meetings said they were intended to try to get the two countries focused on some common long-term goals. The Chinese sounded more cooperative themes than in the spring, when two other administration officials were told, as one senior official put it, that “it was the Obama administration that caused this mess, and it’s the Obama administration that has to clean it up.”
All of this has focused attention on Obama’s meeting yesterday with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), at the UN. Put simply, both sides are nervous about whether they can right a partnership that just a year ago was acclaimed on both sides of the Pacific as the emergence of a “G2,” who, together, would use their economic and political clout to manage the world economy.
“It is not a secret that at the UN we have some challenging diplomacy with the Chinese,” Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for Asia, said last week in a talk at the US Institute for Peace.
China’s reluctance to embrace Iran sanctions was no surprise. China imports about 12 percent of its oil from Iran and kept energy sanctions out of a UN Security Council resolution this year. The White House fears that Chinese may begin to ship gasoline to Iran to make up for its shortages; one senior official said there was no evidence of that yet, “and we are watching.”
North Korea was a surprise: Through last year, Beijing and Washington worked fairly well together on sanctions in response to the North’s second nuclear test. However, with a leadership transition expected in Pyongyang, Beijing has gone its own way, watering down the response to the sinking of a South Korean ship and hosting North Korean leader Kim Jong-il before Donilon and Summers arrived.
But it is the currency issue that is bound to dominate the discussion between the two leaders. For all of China’s promises to gradually allow its currency to rise the adjustment since 2008 has been a minuscule 1.6 percent. Obama issued a warning shot on Monday.
“They have not done everything that needs to be done,” he said. “We are going to continue to insist that on this issue and on all trade issues between us and China, that it’s a two-way street.”
Then, perhaps hoping to catch Wen’s attention as he arrived in New York, Obama started talking about enforcing trade laws “much more effectively than we have in the past.”
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