January 16, 2011


[At a time when China looms increasingly large in U.S. economic and security concerns, the distribution of power in Beijing, as well as in Washington, will decide whether the pledges of cooperation that will be made next week by President Obama and the Chinese leader take solid form, or quickly dissolve, as many did after Obama's trip to Beijing in November 2009.]

By Andrew Higgins
HONG KONG - When Hu Jintao visits the United States on Tuesday, he'll have a regal entourage of aides, bodyguards and limousines. But the Chinese leader will leave behind in Beijing the most potent totem of his power: the title of general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.

He's not giving up his day job as head of the world's largest political organization, but during his four-day U.S. trip, he'll assume an alternative identity. He'll be greeted at the White House and a Chicago auto-parts factory as Mr. President, a made-for-export alias used mostly for encounters with foreigners.

The morphing of roles flows from the protocol of his mission. Hu travels to the United States to represent China as a nation, not just its ruling party. But the shift obscures the true nature, and also curious limitations, of Hu's authority - his stewardship of a sprawling party apparatus that stands above all formal institutions of government but is no longer a rigid monolith obedient to a single leader. It also helps explain why Washington often has so much trouble figuring out who is making decisions in Beijing and why.

At a time when China looms increasingly large in U.S. economic and security concerns, the distribution of power in Beijing, as well as in Washington, will decide whether the pledges of cooperation that will be made next week by President Obama and the Chinese leader take solid form, or quickly dissolve, as many did after Obama's trip to Beijing in November 2009.

After a tense year that saw frequent verbal clashes between Washington and Beijing on everything from trade and currency to North Korea and the South China Sea, Hu is seeking to reaffirm China's position as a rising power but also to calm fears over its intentions. The trip "is intended to put the toothpaste back in the tube and stabilize the relationship," said Aaron Friedberg, a Princeton University professor and a former security affairs adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.

As China has grown stronger and wealthier, however, its leadership has grown more diffuse and harder to locate, and in some ways even weaker.

"China is no longer ruled by a strong man a la Mao [Zedong] or Deng Xiaoping, but by a collective oligarchy," said Susan Shirk, a deputy assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration.

The diffusion of authority, which has accelerated steadily since the death of Deng in 1997, reflects both the growing complexity of society and governance and the personalities of senior leaders forged not by revolutionary struggle, but by the give-and-take of bureaucratic consensus.

The party, with some 80 million members, still blankets China and swiftly snuffs out direct challenges to its authority, but is itself a collection of different and often competing interests. It is not held together by ideology but by the glue of nationalism, a force that ranges from low-key pride in China's past and current achievements to strident jingoism.

"The U.S. always hoped that China would become more diversified," said Jin Canrong, vice dean of the School of International Studies at People's University in Beijing. This is now happening, and the United States "has got to get used to it." Competing voices mean that Chinese decision-making on foreign policy "will be more and more like that in the U.S. in the future."

A big difference, however, is that some of China's most powerful voices are heard only in secret. "This is one of the great frustrations and paradoxes about China," Shirk said. "It has a vibrant market economy that is open to the world, but a decision-making process that is very, very opaque."

Power structure

America's confusion extends to Hu himself, who stands at the apex of a highly centralized party structure but is sometimes kept in the dark and even defied by those he nominally controls, particularly the People's Liberation Army. In a meeting last Tuesday with visiting Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, for example, Hu seemed unaware that his military had just tested a stealth fighter jet. "Is this true?," he asked Defense Minister Liang Guanglie, according to a senior U.S. official.

On North Korea, Chinese policy is guided by clear national interests, such as a desire to prevent a tidal wave of desperate refugees crashing across its border, but also by long and intimate relations between China's Communist Party and the Korean Workers' Party. Beijing's day-to-day dealings with Pyongyang are handled not by the Foreign Ministry but by the party's International Liaison Department.

"For us, China's decision-making on North Korea was always a black box. There was the party, the Foreign Ministry and the military," recalled Victor Cha, who served as a Korea expert on the National Security Council in the Bush administration and traveled to Beijing for now-suspended six-party talks on Pyongyang's nuclear program. Chinese diplomats "are the ones that show up at the table, but I don't think they steer overall policy."

U.S. officials, Cha said, have frequent and often constructive contacts on North Korea with the Chinese Foreign Ministry but none with the party department directly responsible. "I don't recall ever meeting the party," said Cha, a senior fellow at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies.

There is also a cacophony of views on currency policy, which, despite some changes, Washington insists is still unfairly skewed to boost Chinese exports and which will likely be a major issue during Hu's visit. The People's Bank of China, the country's central bank, favors a stronger yuan, something the U.S. has long demanded. This would, among other things, help calm inflation, now a major concern for leaders, by reducing the price of foreign foods and other imports. But the central bank has little of the independence enjoyed by the U.S. Federal Reserve to fix policy.

The Commerce Ministry, focused on keeping China's export juggernaut roaring, fiercely resists any sharp rise in the value of the Chinese currency, which would make Chinese goods more expensive abroad. It casts itself as a bulwark of patriotism against foreign pressure.

The State Council, or cabinet, adjudicates, but the final decision is thought to rest with the Standing Committee of the Politburo, whose agenda, deliberations and decisions are secret. "We have a pretty good handle" on the general decision-making process, said Victor Shih, a scholar of China's political economy at Northwestern University, "but nobody can know who makes a particular decision."

'A lot of players'

The party and state often overlap, as in the case of Hu, who, like his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, is both general secretary and "state chairman," a title that China renders into English as "president." He's also head of the Central Military Affairs Commission, a party body that is far more important than the largely powerless Defense Ministry, which hosted Gates's trip to China.

The mixing of functions makes it difficult for outsiders to locate where exactly policy is set, particularly as the party, while far removed from its Marxist roots, retains many of the secretive habits of its origins as an underground organization. The recent appointment of a high-ranking official as party secretary for the Foreign Ministry, for example, spurred debate among tea-leaf-reading China watchers over whether he, or the minister, is really in charge.

"The reality is that in foreign affairs, as in other areas, there are a lot of players. Coordination is not their strong suit," said Kenneth Lieberthal, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who served as a China expert in the Clinton administration.

Both Beijing and Washington hope that Hu's visit will soothe recent tensions that, according to Jia Qingguo, vice dean of Peking University's School of International Studies, left both sides worried about the risk of "more and bigger conflicts" in the future.

But with Hu due to step down next year in favor of Xi Jinping, a fellow member of the Politburo Standing Committee, commitments made in Washington next week could buckle under the pressure of a political transition that may embolden more nationalist, anti-American forces.

China's senior leaders are all "very cautious" and don't want unscripted upsets, said Friedberg, the Princeton professor. But in a system that is closed but also surprisingly open to competing pressures, including public opinion, "maybe being assertive, unapologetic and truculent is the best, most cautious place for them to be."

Researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.        

@ The Washington Post


[Sino-U.S. relations need not take such a turn. On most contemporary issues, the two countries cooperate adequately; what the two countries lack is an overarching concept for their interaction. During the Cold War, a common adversary supplied the bond. Common concepts have not yet emerged from the multiplicity of new tasks facing a globalized world undergoing political, economic and technological upheaval.]

By Henry A. Kissinger

The upcoming summit between the American and Chinese presidents is to take place while progress is being made in resolving many of the issues before them, and a positive communique is probable. Yet both leaders also face an opinion among elites in their countries emphasizing conflict rather than cooperation.

Most Chinese I encounter outside of government, and some in government, seem convinced that the United States seeks to contain China and to constrict its rise. American strategic thinkers are calling attention to China's increasing global economic reach and the growing capability of its military forces.

Care must be taken lest both sides analyze themselves into self-fulfilling prophecies. The nature of globalization and the reach of modern technology oblige the United States and China to interact around the world. A Cold War between them would bring about an international choosing of sides, spreading disputes into internal politics of every region at a time when issues such as nuclear proliferation, the environment, energy and climate require a comprehensive global solution.

Conflict is not inherent in a nation's rise. The United States in the 20th century is an example of a state achieving eminence without conflict with the then-dominant countries. Nor was the often-cited German-British conflict inevitable. Thoughtless and provocative policies played a role in transforming European diplomacy into a zero-sum game.

Sino-U.S. relations need not take such a turn. On most contemporary issues, the two countries cooperate adequately; what the two countries lack is an overarching concept for their interaction. During the Cold War, a common adversary supplied the bond. Common concepts have not yet emerged from the multiplicity of new tasks facing a globalized world undergoing political, economic and technological upheaval.

That is not a simple matter. For it implies subordinating national aspirations to a vision of a global order.

Neither the United States nor China has experience in such a task. Each assumes its national values to be both unique and of a kind to which other peoples naturally aspire. Reconciling the two versions of exceptionalism is the deepest challenge of the Sino-American relationship.

America's exceptionalism finds it natural to condition its conduct toward other societies on their acceptance of American values. Most Chinese see their country's rise not as a challenge to America but as heralding a return to the normal state of affairs when China was preeminent. In the Chinese view, it is the past 200 years of relative weakness - not China's current resurgence - that represent an abnormality.

America historically has acted as if it could participate in or withdraw from international affairs at will. In the Chinese perception of itself as the Middle Kingdom, the idea of the sovereign equality of states was unknown. Until the end of the 19th century, China treated foreign countries as various categories of vassals. China never encountered a country of comparable magnitude until European armies imposed an end to its seclusion. A foreign ministry was not established until 1861, and then primarily for dealing with colonialist invaders.

America has found most problems it recognized as soluble. China, in its history of millennia, came to believe that few problems have ultimate solutions. America has a problem-solving approach; China is comfortable managing contradictions without assuming they are resolvable.

American diplomacy pursues specific outcomes with single-minded determination. Chinese negotiators are more likely to view the process as combining political, economic and strategic elements and to seek outcomes via an extended process. American negotiators become restless and impatient with deadlocks; Chinese negotiators consider them the inevitable mechanism of negotiation. American negotiators represent a society that has never suffered national catastrophe - except the Civil War, which is not viewed as an international experience. Chinese negotiators cannot forget the century of humiliation when foreign armies exacted tribute from a prostrate China. Chinese leaders are extremely sensitive to the slightest implication of condescension and are apt to translate American insistence as lack of respect.

North Korea provides a good example of differences in perspective. America is focused on the proliferation of nuclear weapons. China, which in the long run has more to fear from nuclear weapons there than we, in addition emphasizes propinquity. It is concerned about the turmoil that might follow if pressures on nonproliferation lead to the disintegration of the North Korean regime. America seeks a concrete solution to a specific problem. China views any such outcome as a midpoint in a series of interrelated challenges, with no finite end, about the future of Northeast Asia. For real progress, diplomacy with Korea needs a broader base.

Americans frequently appeal to China to prove its sense of "international responsibility" by contributing to the solution of a particular problem. The proposition that China must prove its bona fides is grating to a country that regards itself as adjusting to membership in an international system designed in its absence on the basis of programs it did not participate in developing.

While America pursues pragmatic policies, China tends to view these policies as part of a general design. Indeed, it tends to find a rationale for essentially domestically driven initiatives in terms of an overall strategy to hold China down.

The test of world order is the extent to which the contending can reassure each other. In the American-Chinese relationship, the overriding reality is that neither country will ever be able to dominate the other and that conflict between them would exhaust their societies. Can they find a conceptual framework to express this reality? A concept of a Pacific community could become an organizing principle of the 21st century to avoid the formation of blocs. For this, they need a consultative mechanism that permits the elaboration of common long-term objectives and coordinates the positions of the two countries at international conferences.

The aim should be to create a tradition of respect and cooperation so that the successors of leaders meeting now continue to see it in their interest to build an emerging world order as a joint enterprise.

The writer was secretary of state from 1973 to 1977.

@  The Washington Post