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A week in the life of China/US politics

How might a Chinese diplomat begin evaluating the tenor of things in the US while President Xi Jinping is in the middle of his most recent visit to America? J BROOKS SPECTOR tries to walk a mile – or at least a few hundred metres – in such a person’s shoes.

Just for a moment, imagine yourself as a senior Chinese diplomat stationed in Washington, DC, trying to piece together a comprehensive reporting telegram on the events of the past week – and looking forward to global reactions to President Xi Jinping’s United Nations (UN) speech on Monday 28 September. Embassies still do reports like this, even if these messages are usually transmitted via sophisticated classified e-mail systems these days, rather than old-school radio telegrams that used encrypting and decrypting machinery of the kind that was de rigueur in an older version of diplomacy.

Even though key parts of Xi’s visit have not yet taken place, this time around, a message from the Chinese Embassy in Washington would, already, want to explain the impact of Pope Francis’s extraordinary visit as well as the sudden resignation of the Republican speaker of the House just a day after his personal triumph with the pope’s speech to the joint session of the US Congress. But there will also be a need to acknowledge the surprising success of non-politician outsiders in the run-up to the Republican presidential primaries and the fact that everything in American government is now viewed through an elections prism, and even reported meetings to be scheduled between US and Russian leaders over Syria. And in the background of all of this would be a need to tease out an understanding of what will matter most for Barack Obama in his remaining time as president.

Naturally, too, this message would have to focus closely on assessing the impact of China’s own presidential visit across the US. And all of this has been happening within the past week or so. For many, an inscrutable America has increasingly become a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma for wary Easterners. What clues for the future for Chinese decision makers could one draw from such a mix of events and issues?

To begin with, the Chinese diplomat would probably want to explore the hunger so many Americans seem to have for inspirational leadership that successfully melds religious themes with near-millenarian political messages on equality, environmental protection, and concern for the poor and immigrants. The diplomat would certainly have scratched his head in trying to explain how the foreign-born head of a religion representing about a sixth of the country’s people has also managed to connect with so many people from other religious backgrounds – or those without a religious orientation. For a Chinese analyst, such religious fervour could easily be seen as a dangerous, divisive feature of American society. But these high points from Pope Francis’s visit also seem be in real conflict with the strongly held beliefs of the country’s political majority – at least as it is expressed in the political balance in Congress and by those big crowds for some of the Republican candidates seeking their party’s presidential nomination. Clearly Americans have made their politics messy, untidy and confusing precisely in order to confound foreign observers.

But then, at virtually the same time, there has been the even more confusing, totally unexpected resignation of the Republican speaker John Boehner. And this occurred when he had reached the pinnacle of his political life – and just as he had succeeded in hosting the spiritual leader of his own religious denomination.

Boehner’s party has a substantial majority in the House of Representatives, and he certainly should have been able to enforce his guidance upon his parliamentary followers. But the so-called ‘tea party’ caucus on the right wing of his party has been relentlessly pushing him not to compromise with any of Obama’s legislative goals. And some of those right-wing radicals had even been publicly threatening to unseat Boehner from his leadership position if he didn’t stand firm on de-funding any government support for a family planning nongovernmental organisation, along with a number of other measures, even if the result would be that Congress would be unable to approve government funding for the fast-approaching new fiscal year.

Our Chinese diplomat might even remind his readers that this kind of chaotic indiscipline would never be tolerated in Chinese budgeting, planning or parliamentary activity – let alone by the governing party acting in its role as the steward of the people’s progress. By contrast, Americans seem unable to overcome an inability to work together for the common good – and this is something that will haunt them for the future. As a result, this could well give China a critical edge in competition with America.

Of course our Chinese diplomat might well have an awkward moment in addressing those questions without also noting the increasing public revelations of corruption and shady dealings in China by some government officials and the heads of state-owned enterprises and certain private enterprises. Raising these questions would, of course, open up some difficult comparisons, given the waste in financial resources building those ghost cities, the apparent panic on the part of government managers as the country’s stock market has taken a severe knock, and as safe havens for Chinese citizens’ savings apparently evaporate in the melee.

Still, our Chinese diplomat would feel compelled to highlight the successes – so far at least – of Xi’s visit to the US, including a full-on state dinner at the White House. He would note, for example that much US domestic and international commentary has been along the lines of Bruce Jones’s piece for the Brookings Institution. Jones argued: “We will likely look back on 2015 as a consequential year in China’s evolving global strategy. The September crash of the stock market in Shanghai signifies the first contemporary occasion when China’s internal difficulties have had real global consequences. In November, China will take over the leadership of the G-20 (Group of 20) and have an opportunity to put its stamp on the evolving tools of global governance. And on September 28, President Xi Jinping will address the world during the 70th anniversary of the only global body in which China already has full powers — the United Nations.”

Demonstrating an understanding that the core of this trip is business (or, rather, the tight harnessing of business with government), Xi’s West Coast events focused firmly on the information technology and hi-tech industries. The irony, of course, is that some corporate leaders, such as facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, were perfectly happy to engage with Xi even though their products and services were still unavailable in China, for now. The Chinese delegation and leaders of American business signed deals for billions of dollars – with Chinese agreement to purchase technology that will help the country keep up to date, such as that giant deal to purchase new passenger jets. China will not have to lay out enormous amounts of capital to build up the full manufacturing infrastructure for major components, even as subcomponents will be fabricated in China.

But the biggest highlights of the visit have come on the East Coast. Stealing a step on factions in the US government aligned to the environmental movement, China has announced a major ‘cap and trade’ plan for carbon emissions in the future. This announcement garnered headlines and gained significant acclaim. This is particularly important given that China is now the globe’s largest carbon polluter (although the US remains substantially ahead on a per capita basis) and there has been increasing criticism of China’s positions on environmental issues.

Moreover, in front of the White House, with the world watching live on multiple international news channels, Xi was able to make – together with Obama – an announcement about a bilateral agreement to prevent cyber spying for commercial gain, answering a growing criticism of China’s presumed behaviour by Americans. This agreement received excellent media commentary.

Typical was an Associated Press report that said: “China’s pledge to help crack down on hackers who steal commercial secrets from the United States, even coming as it did amid a bit of arm-twisting by President Barack Obama, is a big breakthrough that could reduce US-China tensions and end huge losses for American companies.

Analysts say the agreement between the world’s two biggest economies is just a start but could lead to real progress on the cybertheft issue — depending on how well it’s put in place. Still, it’s not easy to track down hackers and prove responsibility, experts say, even as they found hope in Friday’s announcement by Obama at a joint news conference with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“‘I think it’s a big deal,’ said Dmitri Alperovich, who published a seminal paper in 2011 identifying Chinese cyber economic espionage and now runs the cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike. ‘For the first time ever, the Chinese have made a distinction between national security espionage and economic espionage.’ Also significant, Alperovich said, is the fact that the Chinese have agreed to provide responses to US government requests for investigations. ‘They can’t just shrug and say, “We don’t do hacking; hacking is illegal”,’ he said.”

About this agreement, Malcolm Lee, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former White House economic official, added that the agreement will “begin to address one of the most destabilising and corrosive issues in the relationship”. And the executive director for China at the US Chamber of Commerce, Jeremie Waterman, termed it a “a clear statement” on an issue of critical importance to the future of relations between the two countries. “Hopefully, it marks a new chapter,” Waterman added, although he did note that, as with all negotiations between the two nations, the key remains effective implementation.

And despite these clear advances for China in bilateral terms, Xi was also able to deflect pointed criticism of reported construction by China on several small islands in the Spratlys chain in the South China Sea, without being directly contradicted by Obama. Instead, Xi was able to state that these islands have always been part of Chinese territory. The result of this will now demand some careful diplomacy by the US with its allies and partners in Southeast Asia so the Americans can move away from any appearance of a tacit endorsement of China’s sovereignty over those islands.

Our Chinese diplomat might well take this moment to contrast China’s successes with Xi’s US visit with the difficult and limited relationships now between the US and Russia. He might well note that, save for cooperation on aspects of counter-terrorism efforts and the Iranian nuclear accord, virtually all of the conversations between those two nations have now boiled down to a series of unpleasant security issues such as the ongoing strife in Ukraine or Russia’s reported growing military involvement in the Syrian chaos. In fact, rather than finding ways to achieve greater economic partnership, economic and business relations between these two nations are now largely hostage to those political and security disputes between them. What this means, our Chinese diplomat would surely opine, is that in contrast to those unpleasant US-Russia relations, China and America are certainly the globe’s pre-eminent economic players for the foreseeable future – and that the fortunes of the two nations are increasingly intertwined in ways that cannot easily be separated.

Our Chinese diplomat might also add a note on his country’s other Brics partners – India, Brazil and South Africa. As Jones went on to note: “Xi’s putative allies in the forging of a post-American order — Russia, Brazil, and India — won’t be nearly the help to China they have often been presumed to be. President Vladimir Putin will speak against the backdrop of Russia’s aggressive strategy in Ukraine and now Syria; Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff against the backdrop of a deep recession and a huge corruption scandal; and while President Narendra Modi is still riding relatively high internationally, he’s hardly riding in a pro-China direction.” The future may not be through those Brics capitals, at least from the Chinese perspective.

Interestingly, the Chinese diplomat might note that Jones fails to even mention South Africa in this context, even though that nation is embarked on a seemingly quixotic charge for permanent representation on the UN Security Council for two African nations. Instead of building bridges, the country’s leading political party, the African National Congress, in its newest international relations manifesto, has adopted language strongly critical of America in ways that seem to echo the fraught days of the Cold War, rather than acknowledging economic partnerships as the real road to the future.

The Chinese diplomat would possibly note, too, that South Africans seem to have ignored the fact they run a significant trade surplus with the US (as well as with the rest of Africa) and that they might hope for more such earnings from adroit negotiations, even as the Chinese-South African trade relationship still tips strongly in China’s favour. Of course China will lend vocal support to South African concerns at the UN, but, in truth, the real action is in additional bilateral agreements with the US or larger global trade negotiations, especially as China comes to play a bigger role in multinational financial institutions and as the incoming chair of the G-20, especially once the current downturn in Chinese growth is overcome.

Rounding off his report, our Chinese diplomat might well end his interim evaluation by noting that Xi addresses the UN General Assembly on 28 September. He will set out China’s vision for the future, for the ways in which the international financial architecture will need to adjust to the rise of China in world affairs, and how UN members will need to find ways to support the growth of prosperity for the global population as well as secure global efforts to prevent greater climate change. Our Chinese diplomat will likely end his optimistic report by saying this speech by Xi will be one of the most carefully read and listened to speeches by a Chinese leader in many years – especially since he will be in office for years to come. And so it will be, too. DM

Photo: US President Barack Obama (R) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) attend a welcome ceremony on the south lawn of the White House, in Washington, DC, US, on 25 September 2015. Obama welcomed Xi to the White House with military honours and praised cooperation between the nations, while insisting he would address differences ‘candidly’. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

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