BEIJING - China's pivotal role in trying to get North Korea to commit to denuclearization and return to multilateral talks on its nuclear program could bring United States President Barack Obama a substantial reward for the long-standing US approach of peaceful engagement with the North. Furthermore, it would be Beijing's first significant political contribution to Obama's policy of a renewed and strengthened commitment with China.
Relations between Beijing and Washington certainly need such a boost after a rough few months, but there is still a long way to go.
On Friday, February 5, Communist Party international affairs chief Wang Jiarui was on his way to Pyongyang to see the reclusive head of North Korea, Kim Jong-il, and to receive Kim's denuclearization pledge - and thus guarantee the return to six-party disarmament talks. As a sign that this could indeed occur, at the same time, Pyongyang announced the release of Korea-born United States activist Robert Park, 28, held since he crossed into the North in December.
Last year, the North also captured two American journalists who had crossed the border and subjected the US to a long and gruesome bargaining process for their release, resulting in former US President Bill Clinton paying a visit to Pyongyang to secure their release.
Kim's pledge for denuclearization, and his decision this week to send Kim Kye-gwan, his top nuclear envoy, to Beijing is another positive sign that the reclusive leader at least wants to appear serious about resuming the stalled six-party talks.
The positive signs over North Korea coincide with another hint of an improved mood between the US and China following the month-long spats over Google, US arms sales to Taiwan and the US president's planned meeting with the Dalai Lama. At the weekend, China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi attended the Munich Security Conference in Germany for the first time.
Jin Canrong, associate dean of the People's University's School of International Studies, reportedly said China's presence at the conference was probably initiated - or at least approved - by Washington. "This is yet another step by China to further integrate into the international community, especially in participating in the affairs with world major powers,' Jin said. "Taking part in the conference will help China to improve its relationship with NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] and other major world powers.''
The 46-year-old gathering of top military brass, diplomats and politicians has its roots in the Cold War and has traditionally centered on areas of common interest to Washington and Europe. China's participation is significant as just a week earlier Beijing said it interrupted military exchanges with America in the wake of the US's announced arms sale to Taiwan.
This thaw could well be the right time to summarize what had been going on between the two sides since Obama left Beijing at the end of his first official visit to China last November. A diplomatic flurry is going on in Beijing to mend fences and a couple of important visits are expected in Beijing after Chinese New Year, falling on February 14. The two sides want to make sure Chinese President Hu Jintao will attend a nuclear disarmament summit in America in April.
This reconstruction is very complex - it would be worth a book, but for present consumption we shall go through it very quickly.
Obama invested much time in his first year wooing China. He went further than any of his predecessors in forging bilateral ties, but he felt that the important summit in Beijing left him with little to show when he returned home. The Chinese did promise commitment on Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea, but with very few details, which is a bad sign. On the vexing currency issue, they pledged the yuan would be revalued to the dollar, but "in due course". That is, it could be months or years before American exports could get a boost through devaluation.
Furthermore, he had to tone down criticism on human-rights issues, something for which he would be lambasted at home. Overall, though, the summit was a breakthrough. A whole new dimension of bilateral ties was opened and although it was not perfect, it was certainly a beginning. In fact, the impression both the Americans and the Chinese gathered was that the next test of renewed ties would be the Copenhagen environment conference in December, which was going to be attended by Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, both confident of success.
From the Chinese side, people felt more confident, perhaps even smug, as they underscored China's continued commitment to the American economy by purchasing US bonds when most countries where shunning them or simply could no longer afford to buy them.
But Copenhagen was a disaster and a major loss of face for Obama, who was banking on the results of this meeting to show he could deliver on his promises. He tried to make up for it: trusting his personal negotiating skills and charisma, he crashed a meeting where he was not expected and where he thought he could clinch a deal with Wen, the decision-maker of the other side.
But Wen does not have the negotiating powers of Obama because decisions are collective in China and any major issue has to be addressed through consensus among the top leaders - the more difficult the decision, the wider the consensus required. Wen is one of these leaders, but cannot swerve too far from a decision made by the whole politburo. Obama didn't get anything out of the meeting and felt bad about working with the Chinese. The sticking point was the verification process, to which the Chinese failed to pay enough attention. (See Copenhagen miscalculation Asia Times Online, December 23, 2009.)
The Chinese also felt wronged in Copenhagen. China had gone in promising a 40% reduction of CO2 emissions by 2020. It is a developing country but it wanted no money in compensation for the cuts. China felt the whole world would applaud, but instead it was booed and cornered as if it had done something wrong.
According to those on the other side of the Pacific, many things went wrong in the following days.
On Christmas Day, December 25, dissident Liu Xiaobo, organizer of Charter 08, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for incitement to subversion against the state. It was a very heavy ruling for a crime of opinion. The ruling was severe enough to draw world public opinion, usually prone to slumber at this time of the year, against China. Was China really committed to liberalization if it sent a literature critic to prison just for asking for constitutional reform? Was this country a real partner of the US if it treated its citizens not so differently from the former Evil Empire, the Soviet Union?
This feeling was further confirmed on December 28 with the announcement of the execution of Pakistan-born British citizen Akmal Shaikh. Nobody in the world doubted he had been smuggling heroin into China from Central Asia, but his family argued he had mental problems and the court refused to admit a psychological evaluation. Perhaps in different times, when the US administration had not been so disgruntled with China, when there was no famous dissident sitting in prison, Shaikh's case wouldn't have caused a wave. But at the end of 2009, it engulfed the world, proving once again the perceived brutality of the Beijing regime.
At the beginning of 2010, almost as if to set the tone of the year, America unleashed a potential nuclear bomb - the Google case. The giant Internet company complained that some of its accounts had been hacked by China. In retaliation, it threatened it would no longer abide by Chinese laws and filter its search engine in China, and thus it would pull out of the country. The issue had been simmering for months, since Taiwan-born Lee Kaifu left as China president of Google, and it is extremely complex. There are three aspects that merge together and influence each other: freedom of the Internet and Chinese censorship, the security concern about government-sponsored hacking and control of the flow of personal information on the Internet, and the commercial bargaining between Google and the Chinese government.
China felt in a difficult position, as it does exercise censorship on the Internet, which is very difficult to justify, and, like many other governments, as it also keep a keen security eye on the web for strategic reasons. Yet while other governments also sponsor hacking or counter-hacking initiatives, China has no division of powers and no limits to the state power. Therefore China's hacking, combined with its censorship, sounds far more alarming than hacking by a democratic government, with its political limits and lack of censorship.
In all this, the timing is important. The issue had been brewing for months, but the US administration green-lighted it just at the beginning of the year. Possibly, the combined effect of the Copenhagen failure and the Liu and Shaikh cases convinced Washington it might be the right time to send a message. For certain, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton decided to up the ante on Google, delivering a tough speech on Internet freedom aimed at China on January 21, two days after the ruinous and historical Democratic defeat in the senate elections in Massachusetts. That defeat certainly sent alarm bells ringing in Obama's camp, and the cause of liberty and freedom in Red China had been for years a strong battle cry for the Democratic camp at home.
Against this backdrop, America announced its sale of weapons to Taiwan. It was known the sale would occur, but the choice of timing, in the middle of the Google controversy, must have been made to reinforce the message of American dissatisfaction with China.
Beijing reacted fiercely on January 30 by threatening sanctions against the companies that sold arms to Taiwan. Then China, trying not to look weak, raised the bar again, and on February 2 the powerful deputy head of the United Front, Zhu Weiqun, hinted at possible economic repercussions if Obama were to meet the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.
"American leaders clearly recognize the PRC [People's Republic of China] as the sole legitimate government of the whole country and of course recognize that Tibet is part of China, so why is it holding such ties with the Dalai Lama, the head of this false government [the Dalai Lama is the head the Tibetan government in exile]? This is absolutely contrary to international rules, it is a serious damage to the basis of political relations with the United States, and it is unreasonable."
But, according to Zhu, who spoke at a news conference in Beijing, this is also contrary to American interests, since the country needs to strengthen bilateral relations due to the severe economic crisis underway.
"If under these circumstances American leaders chose to meet the Dalai Lama, ruining cooperation and trust between the two countries," said Zhu, "what benefits will it have for America today facing an economic crisis?''
The threat was uncalled for and to a large extent gratuitous and it confirmed to China's adversaries in the world that since China was threatening, it was a threat. The result was that the day after that statement was made Obama had to announce he was meeting the Dalai Lama: no head of a country and certainly no head of a superpower can stand being threatened.
Obama's reaction to those threats has been very calm and measured. Zhu spoke from the perspective of China feeling unduly pressured for over a month, but on the other side, America had real concerns about the partnership with China.
Obama's decision early on to initiate a senior-level strategic dialogue with Beijing (led by Clinton herself) represented a clear desire to move US-China relations to a new, higher level of cooperation on a diverse range of issues from countering proliferation to combating climate change. One year later, it remains unclear if China really wants a strategic relationship with the US or just wants to say that it has one [emphasis added]. The Chinese have threatened unspecified "consequences" if the arms sale go ahead as promised (which they will) or if Obama sees the Dalai Lama later this month (which he will), but the reality is Beijing has already been less than fully cooperative on a wide range of issues from Iran (a "core interest" of the US) to climate change (ditto) to Burma [Myanmar] and beyond, and has also seemed to be taking a much softer approach than warranted toward Pyongyang.Facing this dissatisfaction, the US actions were always controlled and measured. The Dalai Lama was called a religious leader, and this together with the arms sale was prepared and announced well in advance. China clearly lost its temper over the Dalai Lama.
While both sides avoided the precipitous drop in US-China relations that had characterized previous regime changes in Washington, and the relationship today is as good or better than last year at this time, it seems clear that the roller-coaster relationship is about to plunge; how steep and how long remain unknown as both sides see the benefit in not letting things get too out of hand even as China tries a bit of muscle flexing, perhaps to (unwisely) test the young American president after a year of stock-taking.
Beijing was warned well in advance that both the arms sale notification and the Dalai Lama visit were in the cards and both events are completely consistent with previous US policy and practices. Beijing's more strident than usual response - it has also threatened to boycott US firms involved in the arms sale - may reflect growing Chinese self-confidence; it could also be laying down a marker for an even harsher response if the Obama administration decides to move forward on the F-16 C/D sale. 
Was there Chinese hubris? It's possible China thought it had done a lot to help America by buying billions of credit when nobody in the world wanted or had money to touch it. And China possibly thought it was too big to be messed with.
Or China simply just did not see what it should give to America to make it happy. Wasn't China already pouring its reserves into dollar accounts, and wasn't it saying that it was willing for the yuan to appreciate, something that could cost its economy dearly?
In a way, there was also another difference. Obama needs quick results that can be shown in the mid-term elections in November. China's leaders, without elections, think of longer-term solutions and then tend not to rush but drag their feet on complex issues like Iran and North Korea.
From all this, in the short term it seems very likely now that China will be more cooperative with America. However, it will be a complex year ending, perhaps with a major environmental agreement at the Mexico City summit.
In the long term, there are many lessons to be learned in China. Nobody is too big not to be messed with. At the time of the Opium Wars (1839 to 1842 and 1856 to 1860) China had about one-third of the global gross domestic product and held about 70% of the world's silver, yet in a matter of a few years its economy plunged and the country was torn by revolutions and invasions. China's economy is actually much weaker than in the 19th century.
Furthermore, China has no real, deep friends in the world whereas America, despite all its weakness, can command friendship and loyalty from many countries. The US can muster global forces around China or any country it deems a problem. America can command global public opinion and even influence Chinese domestic public opinion, whereas the Chinese government sometimes has a hard time commanding its own arena.
In a world where public ideas are exchanged very fast and have deep influence on policies and decisions, you have to convince others of your opinion - it is not enough to demand them to respect your position. In other words, on the Dalai Lama, for instance, Beijing will have to convince people in other countries of its position. Here, domestic Chinese public opinion is easily stirred by appeals to nationalism, but abroad Beijing knows that demanding respect for China's position sounds like it is trying to impose an order on others.
In sum, the reasons for and arguments behind the ongoing series of controversies between the US and China did not come across to the rest of the world. In a parallel way, there were American perspectives that Beijing did not fully understand. It is a deep lack of mutual understanding.
China realized the importance of global public opinion, but it gave the wrong answer: it gave money to big state media organizations, CCTV, the People's Daily and Xinhua, which were eager to take a slice rather than to make an effort to influence world public opinion. In fact, the big state media outlets are by themselves unconvincing, no matter what product they churn out. Nobody in the world trusts state media, and especially so if it is the voice of an authoritarian state. In this situation, China is totally disarmed: it has no sympathetic independent press on the global scene.
One way to improve its global image would be to allow an independent press. This move would have by itself immense foreign benefits. Yet internally it could rock the boat of many finely tuned balances of power, and thus it is untenable.
China's frustrations in communicating with the world are bound to grow, causing more problems at home and abroad.
On the other hand, one wonders just how bad the US-China relationship can really get. They depend on each other for currency, trade, development and security: breaking this reliance would cause about the same consequences of the Cold War. But while the Cold War was a balance of terror with no carrot for either side and only the nightmare of a cataclysmic nuclear stick, a breakdown in the US-China relationship would bring greater poverty and political chaos. Mutual reliance has so far made everybody richer and promises to go on doing so (although some have become richer than others). Its rules are far more complicated and intricate than the zero-sum game played with the Soviets. There is too much to gain in developing the US-China relationship and too much to lose in breaking it.
Still, certainly in the near future, spats between the US and China are bound to increase. Differences that earlier, from a greater distance, were not visible have become important. As with all ties - and especially with new ties - the closer they bind, the more difficult they become.
1. Cossa, Ralph A PacNet Number 5. February 4, 2010 "Obama's East Asia Policy: So Far, So Good."
Francesco Sisci is the Asia Editor of La Stampa.
(Copyright 2010 Francesco Sisci)