Thursday, April 20, 2006

Accidents at the White House?

There is a long tradition in American politics of "accidents" at the White House which enable the president or senior government officials to meet controversial people or deliver unpleasant messages without having them be graced with the official seal of approval. JFK meeting Martin Luther King; Clinton "just happening" to run into Salman Rushdie; the first president Bush meeting the prime minister of Lithuania as a "private citizen" in order not to weaken Gorbachev ...

And during Hu Jintao's "official" (not "state") visit to Washington, a series of gaffes and mistakes. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank described how the "protocol-obsessed Chinese leader suffered a day full of indignities -- some intentional, others just careless." A reporter for a Falun Gong affiliated newspaper with a prior record of confronting Chinese leaders on their overseas trips was issued a press credential; the Secret Service took 3 minutes to respond; the official White House announcer introdued the national anthem of the "Republic of China" (the Nationalist style and retained by the government on Taiwan), and so on.

Standard responses: sorry, mistakes are made; we have a free press and it is difficult to control events, and so on. The problem is that the Chinese Embassy staff are not country cousins dazzled by life in Washington. Anyone who followed the 2004 presidential campaign knows how both the Bush and Kerry teams choreographed events, controlled access, stage-managed productions to a flourish. What's the credo of the Godfather? Accidents don't happen to people who treat accidents as a personal insult. So will they assume that these accidents were done deliberately, a way to call attention to U.S. complaints about China (religious persecution, Falun Gong, Taiwan), but without having to put the president on the spot?

All of this begs a more serious question. The Sino-American relationship is one of the most critical building blocks of the international political and economic order. China cannot "go away" (not certainly if we want our debt financed). How do we deal with disagreements and tensions? Do we downplay them in our official statements but have them pop up "with plausible deniability"? I don't know.

At any rate, as Milbank pointed out: "Bush apologized to the angry Chinese leader in the Oval Office. "Frankly, we moved on," National Security Council official Dennis Wilder told reporters later. It was, he said, a "momentary blip."

Maybe, but Hu was in no mood to make concessions."

So, instead of any major breakthrough, what did the White House announce today?

"MEDICARE CHECK-UP: Prescription Drug Benefit Enrollment Hits 30 Million . . . ."

And we're surprised at how the talks on Iran in Moscow are going?

I still cannot believe what happened in D.C. today. I just can't.

China Law
The Chinese (and most other countries) don't understand the American game of politics, of "sending signals" and appealing to domestic pressure groups. If we have serious concerns and these limit the type of relationship we can have with Beijing, then make that clear and upfront.

The NSC staffer quoted seems too quick to dismiss the impact. Aren't we still getting flack over the bombing of the embassy in Belgrade in 1999?
I've been reading the various blogs linked to the Milbank piece, and reaction is across the board, from how great it was to confront an oppressive dictator to what this does to US interests.

It shows that comparmentalization isn't working. We can't act forcefully on human rights issues if we are economically dependent; we want the human rights issues to go away because we don't want to pay higher prices for goods and we don't want to undertake the Cold War level of effort to contain China as we did the USSR.
You mention the negotiations on Iran in Moscow. Еhe problem is that the this administration does not bargain. The other day my student asked me why Russian won't cooperate with the US policy on Iran. I asked him to respone to the following question: what will Russia gain from cooperating? And what will they lose? I am still waiting for an answer...
The world needs to understand that the must continually bow to the Only Superpower, and if they do not, well, we'll keep borrowing money from them.

We have yet to learn in our dealings with China and Russia that a policy consisting of non-negotiable demands and pokes in the eye will fail to induce them to agree with us. Here's a priceless bit which sums up or foreign policy cluelessness over the last decade or so:

"The geostrategic implications of uneven moralizing on democratization issues when it comes to Russia are even more significant when one looks at the long-term and specifically at the emerging Sino-Russian relationship. At some point in the perhaps not too distant future Russian can begin to reduce gas sales to Europe, replacing them with sales to China, its new partner in opposition to America’s democratization-centered foreign policy (one that ignores Saudi totalitarianism, downplays China’s harsh authoritarianism, but rings alarm bells about Russia’s soft authoritarianism). Sales of oil to the U.S, can be foregone in favor of the same customer. As China expert with Russia’s Oriental Studies Institute Sergei Lazyunin noted in a recent interview: “China will not haggle, like Ukraine. It will be world prices. It is a vast market at world prices. So, Russia when discussing gas with China is simultaneously talking with Europe. It seems to say, it is not for nothing that we are a Eurasian power and the distance from West Siberia to Western China is shorter than to Europe.” At least when Western energy supplies begin to dwindle and economies grind to a halt, we will be comforted by the thought that NATO members like Poland and Ukraine buy a few airplanes and some spare parts from U.S. contractors and the three-plane Latvian air force adds to the Western military power forced to confront China and its good friend Russia and fight the war on Islamist terror simultaneously."
@conservative realist: China understands the game of sending signals just fine--it has demonstrated this knowledge with its strategic use of domestic nationalism in diplomatic disputes with Japan and most importantly with Taiwan. The regime's legitimacy is now based on Chinese nationalism, not communism, and as such it knows that the public views its actions over Taiwan as a signal as to whether or not it is the right party to rule over China's rise to Great Power status.

Whether the slights were intentional or not they will have ramifications for US-China relations down the road--Hu will not forget the face lost this week, so when the US asks for a face-saving concession from the Chinese it won't be forthcoming.
Reminds me of that West Wing episode Shibboleth where the president arranges for Chinese refugees to "escape" INS detention ...
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