The Chinese government is secretly reaching
out to the Obama administration with the message that they want to improve strained
U.S.-China relations ahead of President Hu
Jintao's visit to Washington next January.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs confirmed Thursday that
the Chinese Communist Party leader will make a state visit to Washington to
hold a summit with President Obama in January, although no specific date has
been set. Hu and Obama met Thursday on the sidelines of the U.N. General
Assembly in New York, amid increasing regional angst at what the Obama
administration and several East Asian countries see as China's increasingly
aggressive and arrogant foreign policy.
Recently, the Chinese have been sending out "Track 2" messages, or informal
communiqués, to the United States,
indicating that they now want to restart military-to-military relations, which
were established in 2009 but cut off by Beijing earlier this year, an administration official told The Cable. In response,
the administration is dispatching an interagency team led by Deputy Assistant
Secretary of Defense Michael Schiffer
to Beijing next week to meet with Chinese officials.
The Obama administration does not
want the military relationship between the two countries to become a bargaining
chip that the Chinese can use to voice their displeasure with U.S. policy.
Their argument is that military cooperation is in both countries' interests -- not
a reward. If China agrees to restart cooperation without any direct incentives,
that's a win for the Obama team.
"From our perspective we believe a
stable and reliable mil to mil relationship is in the interests of both
countries," the official said. "We want something that is continuous through
times of friction, with crisis management mechanisms to avoid conflict. The
lack of consistent dialogue increases the risks of miscalculation or
are several recent actions by the Chinese that have alienated their neighbors.
In addition to trying to assert control over the South China Sea, a move that angered
leaders, Beijing also ruined its relationship with South Korea by supporting North Korea after
the sinking of the South Korean ship Cheonan.
month, China took retaliatory measures against Japan after Tokyo arrested a
Chinese boat captain for ramming his ship against Japanese Coast Guard boats
near the disputed Senkaku Islands. This is another example of what many see as Beijing
overplaying its hand and taking its new international confidence too far.
"This sort of behavior by the
Chinese is not exactly winning hearts and minds in the region. You can have a
policy difference without engaging in dangerous behavior," the official said.
The Obama administration has made a deliberate and calculated shift in its approach to China over the last few months, deciding
to resist more forcefully Chinese efforts to expand their influence and control
over regional issues, and to coordinate their China policy more closely with
regional allies and partners.
The first public display
of this new approach surfaced when Defense Secretary Robert Gates lambasted the Chinese People's Liberation Army for
cutting off military to military relations during his trip to Singapore in May.
"The PLA is significantly less interested
in this relationship than the political leadership of China," Gates
after being refused permission to visit China as part of that trip.
second major public display of the Obama administration's new approach was when
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shocked the
by announcing that the United States would lead a multilateral effort to resist
Chinese claims of ownership of the South China Sea. Several Southeast Asian
nations rose up in support of the U.S. action.
Obama administration's approach to the South China Sea was a very important and
well-crafted response to Chinese assertiveness. Such strength is a vital
element of our China strategy, and sends a message to Beijing that the United
States will protect its interests," said Abe
Denmark, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
watchers see Beijing's secret outreach to Washington as a realization that they
overplayed their hand and are now trying to do some damage control.
"There was that period toward the end of last year
and the beginning of this year when the popular thinking in China was that the
U.S. had run its course and China had more leverage and so can push their
agenda a bit. Now there's a move to tamp down the Chinese sense of
triumphalism," said Charles Freeman Jr.,
who holds the Freeman Chair (no relation) for China studies at the Center for
Strategic and International Studies.
Freeman sees the administration's shift as not
really a change in policy so much as a change in attitude.
"[The Obama administration] has less interest in
sucking up and showing deference to China, because that didn't work, but
there's been no official shift in policy. It's just that they're a little fed
up with the arrogance," he said.
Not all China hands are convinced that Beijing is
ready to play nice, especially in light of the ongoing spat with Japan, in which
Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael
committed the United States to support Tokyo.
"After this latest case with Japan, they haven't
learned very much," said Dan Blumenthal,
a former Pentagon official who worked on China policy and is now with the
American Enterprise Institute. "I don't think there's a realization in China
that they've overplayed their hand. They're causing all the countries around
the region to fear them and want more involvement by the U.S."
Many analysts see China's
aggressiveness as an indication that the PLA is gaining influence inside the
Chinese system in the run up to a 2012 leadership transition. The Washington Post reported Friday
on the various tensions pulling and pushing policy within the sprawling Beijing
The one thing the administration,
panda huggers, and China hawks can all agree on is that nobody really knows
what Chinese intentions are regarding the United States and what exactly this
latest outreach will mean.
and others have to go over there and figure out if this is just another attempt
at warm and fuzzies or if there's something real there," Freeman said.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images