China’s blustering is insubstantial
By Paul Lin 林保華

Relations between China and the US, which went through a period of tension following the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, have begun to relax somewhat. The main reason for this is that Chinese President and Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) is readying the itinerary for his visit to the US this autumn, and such a glorious journey must be given top priority.

China’s earlier threats to the US have not had the desired effect, so the time has come to end the bluster.

As for the US, if it were not for the sinking of the Cheonan and China’s challenges through claims of core interests, the US would not want to get involved in a game of tit for tat. Now that China has decided to give it a rest, the US is happy to follow suit.

Still, China is a country that will do anything to avoid losing face and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) never admits its mistakes, so even while seeking detente, they cannot resist making sneaky moves.

For example, the Aug. 10 edition of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post quoted a Chinese diplomat as having said that given the tensions between the two countries, Hu’s US scheduled visit next month might be delayed.

However, when, on the same day the report appeared, journalists asked the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs about this, the ministry declined to comment.

Doesn’t this little game fit the model of offering one’s opponent a way out in order to trap him — the 16th of China’s ancient 36 Stratagems?

Obviously Hu still wants to visit Washington, but he put on an act like he no longer wants to go. If this were not the case, why wouldn’t the foreign ministry just say he wasn’t going instead of striking a pose and refusing comment?

The US, hearing this and knowing how hard China finds it to express its true feelings, decided it would be better to make the first move by sending some officials over to help China find a way out.

Receiving the US envoy in Beijing would also satisfy China’s “Central Kingdom” mentality. Those Americans really are such good pals!

So, after fixing things up between the two sides, on Sep. 2, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswomen Jiang Yu (姜瑜) announced that White House adviser and US National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers and US Deputy National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon would visit Beijing from Sept. 5 to Sept. 8.

Prior to the announcement, Beijing has already used overseas media to generate the idea that whatever happened, it would not be a matter of China taking a step back, but of the US asking to get back together.

On Sept. 1, the day before the Chinese foreign ministry’s announcement, the Hong Kong daily Ming Pao ran an article in its “China comment” column entitled “Beijing defeats US diplomatic offensive by combining tough and tender tactics.” Citing a series of China-friendly articles published in South Korea, Vietnam and Japan, the Ming Pao piece said the US’ diplomatic offensive against China following the Cheonan sinking, including arguments over sovereignty and free passage in the South China Sea at the ASEAN Regional Forum, had come to nothing.

How ridiculous! Does the Ming Pao think the US was behind those China-friendly articles? Besides, the US’ efforts to contain China do not mean that it wants to cut off relations with China altogether.

Next, at a routine press conference on Sept. 9, a US Department of Defense spokesperson told reporters that the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington would again take part in naval exercises in the Yellow Sea. This clearly shows that the US had not given in to pressure from China not to send its carriers to take part in the war games.

On Sept. 8, the “China comment” column of Ming Pao ran another article under the headline “There’s more than meets the eye to White House aides’ China visit.”

Reflecting the Chinese government’s point of view, the article said that: “The two officials came to test the water, but on this occasion the US administration has gone around the State Department under US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and instead sent trusted White House advisers to visit China.”

This is a blatant attempt to stir up trouble between Clinton and US President Barack Obama.

It seems that Beijing is very displeased with Clinton’s tough approach and would like Obama to rein her in.

While in Beijing, Summers met with Communist Party official Li Yuanchao (李源潮). Citing official Chinese reports, a Ming Pao opinion piece said Li gave his guests an introduction to the CCP’s organization and party-building, and to the process of reform of China’s cadre and personnel system.

Li is a close factional associate of Hu and likely to enter the Standing Committee of the CCP’s Politbureau at the party’s 18th National Congress.

However, Li is head of the Organization Department of the Communist Party Central Committee, not a government official, while Summers is director of the National Economic Council, an entirely different kind of post with completely different duties.

It would be more accurate to say that it was Hu who sent his trusted adviser to test the water with respect to his planned visit to the US.

In the past, the man responsible for communicating with the US on economic issues has been Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan (王岐山), but Wang is a leftover factional ally of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) and former Chinese premier Zhu Rongji (朱鎔基). He has been touted as a possible future premier instead of Li Keqiang (李克強). Evidently Hu does not fully trust Wang, so he had Li meet the guests instead, on the pretext of talking about personnel issues.

So in fact, it was Hu who went around Wang, not Obama who went around Clinton.

It was only after Li met the US guests and made sure that the US really wanted Hu to visit, that Hu found the time to meet Summers on Sept. 8.

Regarding the arguments about the yuan exchange rate, the Sept. 3 edition of the Washington insider newsletter the Nelson Report said the US’ concern on this issue was the message that Summers was to convey during his China trip.

However, an opinion piece in the Ming Pao held that “the yuan exchange rate issue was not mentioned in any official report. It was not until yesterday that foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu restated her warning that China would not reform the Renminbi exchange rate mechanism under external pressure.”

Jiang’s wording was clearly intended to stress the government’s tough stance, but on Sept. 9, right after Summers left Beijing, US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner called on China to make good on its pledge to revalue the yuan as quickly as possible.

People’s Bank of China assistant governor Li Dongrong (李東榮) immediately responded by saying that China needed to make the yuan exchange rate more flexible.

A reaction was quickly seen in the exchange rate, with the yuan rising sharply against the US dollar when markets opened on Sept. 10.

The People’s Bank of China set the dollar-yuan central parity rate at 6.7625 yuan to the US dollar, a record high for the yuan following 2005 exchange rate reforms and the yuan’s value continued to rise for several days after that.

It is clear that Hu agreed for the yuan to be revalued in exchange for his visit to the US to go ahead, but the US helped Hu save face by not making the deal public. Meanwhile, the Chinese foreign ministry went on bluffing and blustering to fool China’s own citizens and fulfill their fantasies.

The US knows how to play to China’s vanity, and as a result, the US wins on substance, while China is more concerned with appearances.

There is, however, a risk that the vast trade imbalance between the US and China may continue unchanged, China’s political reforms may see no progress and China could successfully divide and conquer the US and its allies.

In that case, the US could still be the loser in the long run.

Paul Lin is a commentator with Radio Free Asia.


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