James Anderson writes from Washington: Yes, I know, it’s Sunday and you probably want to read about some celebs doing their stuff or watch a meaningful porn movie, but as fate would have it you’ve stumbled on a sophisticated, politically sharp website and that is why you’ll have to read about the state of Sino-American relations and find out where they’re heading – if anywhere. So set yourself down and enjoy some fancy political analysis for a change.
Wonders will never cease. In the wake of the Wang Lijun, Bo Xilai and the Chen Guangcheng scandals – one is a former Chinese supercop, the other is a Chinese Politburo member and the last one is a blind Chinese dissident, in case you’re puzzled – it was anticipated by many that Sino-American relations would hit a new low. In fact, the opposite has happened. Relations between the two superpowers are at their best for years.
So what’s going on here, you may be wondering. How come Washington and Beijing are such great friends? Could those crafty Chinese be just biding their time before they make life hell for the US?
Diplomatically, the Americans were sitting ducks not long ago. They could have been accused of violating the Vienna Convention which regulates diplomatic activity. First, Wang Lijun, that’s the former supercop, was allowed into the US consulate in Chengdu. He spent 30 hours there providing the Americans with enough details of the crimes and misdemeanours of Bo Xilai, the Politburo member, his wife and the whole clan to fill a thick thriller. Then Chen Guangcheng, the barefoot dissident lawyer, found refuge in the US embassy in Beijing. A deal was brokered that he would leave and go to hospital for treatment. He was to stay in China. Then he changed his mind and asked to move to the US to study law. How did the Chinese react? They said as a free citizen he was at liberty to leave the country if he wished.
Then the perennial neuralgic point in Sino-American relations surfaced. The White House, in order to get its man confirmed as assistant Secretary of Defence for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, sent a letter to the Republican dominated Congress that it would consider selling – but might not actually sell – new high performance aircraft to Taiwan. Normally when Washington considers or actually does this, Beijing hits the roof. Military contacts are put on hold and furious diatribes are launched at the Yanks. What happened this time? The Chinese Minister of Defence visited Washington for the first time in nine years instead of making a big song and dance about Taiwan.
The Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing last week resulted in agreements on financial services investment, the yuan and more high technology exports. The military talks were even more successful. So why are the Chinese so accommodating?
The obvious reason is probably the correct one: so intricate is the horse trading to select the seven new members of the Politburo Standing Committee – which rules the Middle Kingdom – that the leadership has decided not to complicate Sino-American relations at present. All energies are being devoted to domestic politics. The military and security elite would probably have preferred a spat with the Americans, but they have been overruled. For the time being at least.
President Obama’s initiative in 2010 to foster better relations by arranging reciprocal visits by the President and Vice President, the Secretary of State and National Security Advisor is paying off. The Chinese military leaders have been notoriously reluctant to meet their American counterparts. This appears now to be changing.
The next time a high profile Chinese heads for the US embassy, the wiser policy would be to turn him or her away. Interfering in Chinese domestic politics could be dynamite. Cool heads are needed in Washington at present. And there are not many of them around at the moment.