The news coverage of the U.S.-China relationship is getting more hysterical by the day. The Washington Post last week ran an editorial accusing the Obama administration of spending its first year “going out of its way” to “cater” to Beijing. Moreover, the editorial concluded, this approach backfired, and now China is more aggressive than ever, “busting with hubris,” and testing to see how far it can push the new U.S. president.
The Economist’s coverage was nuanced, but its cover this week shows a giant, smoking dragon looming over a tiny Barack Obama, who appears to be pleading for a rational chat. The New York Times has run a series of pieces suggesting the administration is kowtowing to Beijing, and Robert Kagan and other conservative commentators accuse the Obama administration of appeasing dictatorships and abandoning democracies.
A common narrative in this coverage is that the U.S. decision to sell a large package of arms to Taiwan last week came because Obama administration officials finally realized they needed to take a harder stance. Why? Because their earlier “soft” approach was not working.
What is actually going on here?
The early stages of the U.S.-China relationship during the Obama administration have not played out according to the usual script. The president did not promise on the campaign trail to be “tough” on China—a position he would have been forced to abandon within a few months just as Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton did. In the midst of an unprecedented financial crisis, the Obama administration instead came to office wanting to preserve the stability of the U.S.-China relationship while also placing a new emphasis on joint global problem solving.
This is not appeasement. This is common respect and pragmatism born of looking down the road at a whole host of challenges where the only way forward is to cooperate with China. It is also part of a larger administration effort to mend fences around the world by listening and extending basic courtesy, both of which cost nothing.
But cordiality should also not be confused with deference. From the beginning, the administration also made decisions that cut against Chinese interests, such as imposing tariffs on imports of Chinese tires. And despite many accusations to the contrary, President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and other officials have repeatedly pressed the Chinese on human rights, both publicly and privately.
The Obama approach has yielded some significant results, especially in the area of climate and energy. During the president’s trip to China in November, deliverables included, among other things, a partnership on developing clean-coal technologies and a collaboration to help China develop an accurate greenhouse gas emissions inventory—so we can all know if China is actually bringing those emissions down.
For the first time, China not only voted for tough U.N. sanctions against North Korea last year; it also enforced them. Beijing also joined in a harsh rebuke that the International Atomic Energy Agency issued against Iran in November for its illicit nuclear activities. Beijing agreed during the darkest days of the financial crisis to coordinate their macroeconomic moves with the United States and other economies around the world and, in line with U.S. wishes, enacted the largest economic stimulus of any country, on a percentage basis.
Of course, the glass is still half empty. The Chinese position at the global climate change meeting in Copenhagen was better than most had expected six months earlier, but still not nearly enough to actually prevent the worst effects of global warming. Beijing continues to protect Tehran from additional international sanctions.
Beyond the difficulties on the shared global challenges is the Bermuda triangle of the U.S.-China relationship—trade, Taiwan, and Tibet—that are always neuralgic. In the space of a week, the Obama administration promised to sell Taiwan a $6.4 billion in arms, confirmed that the president will meet the Dalai Lama in February, and raised the pressure on China’s currency policies.
China’s reaction to all of these actions—so far at least—is well within historical norms, especially given that Tibet and Taiwan touch at the core of Chinese anxieties about territorial unity and foreign intervention. China’s leaders face pressure from a loud minority of their own citizens screaming for Beijing to take a “tougher” approach to the United States.
Is China more confident? Yes. Will its increasing diplomatic weight sometimes make it more difficult for America to achieve its priorities? Yes. Is the Obama administration being “tougher” because it suddenly realizes this? Of course not. It is continuing a policy to expand areas of cooperation while dealing with the sometimes sharp differences in an open, straightforward manner.
Aside from fulfilling the ever more ubiquitous media practice of characterizing everything in terms of a conflict, the recent China coverage also plays into the larger meme of American decline that is going around like a bad flu. It is true that China is stronger. And America is weaker. But, importantly, the two are not causally linked.
If America is going to get stronger again, it needs to concentrate on its problems at home. Investments in health care, education, innovation, and clean energy are the real answers to America’s ability to thrive in a world with stronger powers. The gridlock in Washington will influence future American generations much more than what China does or doesn’t do this week. The breathless coverage of the latest spat with China is a distraction from the work at hand.
Nina Hachigian is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-author of The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise (out in paperback next week). To read more about the Center’s China policy recommendations and analysis please go to the National Security page on our website.