As the US and China begin talks about ways China could reduce production of precursor ingredients for this Fentanyl, it may be instructive to review other efforts to engage China in broader policy issues. The uneven results the US achieved in its talks with China came to mind when I met the Chinese APEC delegation in San Francisco a few months ago. Although the conversation was not hostile, it served to remind us that there is great rigidity in the Chinese system, with its policies driven by automaticity, along with high sanctions for any deviation. You may not find much spontaneity in these side discussions, but they are useful for gaining insights and maintaining a professional relationship. China is as much a nation on autopilot as any other, with the auspices of a one-party government resulting in little appetite for course corrections or other byproducts of discussions.
An example of this is the issue of climate change. The contrast between the urgency of the issue and China’s limited response confounds the climate policy community, but in China’s hands this behavior is the norm. China routinely avoids diplomatic initiatives that are considered by others to be of critical importance. In addition to climate change, China has not shown any receptivity to Donald Trump’s trade initiatives, which is usually explained by Trump’s belligerence. More difficult to explain is the similar response to Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s Strategic Economic Dialogue (in which I participated) in the George W. Bush administration, designed to address environmental and trade issues. If Trump were the bad cop of China’s involvement, Paulson was the quintessential good policeman, always diplomatic and persistent, but equally with little to show for his efforts. See several discussions between military personnel on how to improve crisis management. Let’s go back to 1995 and the efforts of First Lady Hillary Clinton leading the US delegation to Beijing for the United Nations Conference on Women. There has been no particular response from Beijing to her efforts. The Minister told me at APEC that women were making substantial gains in China, and the two women in his party didn’t say a word of substance all night.
To be fair, there have also been successes in China outreach, the most famous being the Nixon-Kissinger initiative to normalize relations. Less prominent was the main bilateral trade negotiation forum, the Joint Commission on Trade and Commerce (JCCT), which has seen steady improvements in China’s trading environment over its nearly twenty years of existence (I also participated in several of these negotiations). In addition to these, there have been a series of quieter successes in areas such as civil aviation, tourism and the regularization of Chinese students in the US, in which China readily adopted international standards and thus benefited considerably.
However, high-profile issues reflect more failures than successes. From climate change to trade reform, the role of women and military-to-military consultations, the United States has pursued only what it considers to be in China’s interests. Why was it widely rejected? Let me look at climate change and give four reasons why:
When the US leans forward, it can encourage China to pull back.
US emphasis on the importance of an issue can perversely encourage China to do less, as the US is signaling that it will do more to resolve the problem. China’s reasoning is that the US needs to appease national constituencies, be they climate activists, trade hawks or women’s groups. China does not have this policy.
A version of this phenomenon occurs internationally. The Western public approach can be uninviting and too theatrical for a sober, autocratic government. A Chinese friend once mentioned that the celebrated COP meetings “look like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting,” with public admissions of failures and promises to do better – a role that in China is only played by enemies of the state when they are purged. In a similar vein, the idea of a young person speaking truth to power is a trope in American culture, from Louisa May Alcott to Shirley Temple, so Greta Thunberg finds a receptive audience. In a Leninist/Confucian system that respects hierarchy and the establishment, Thunberg’s behavior will likely be dismissed as theatrics or even rudeness.
The public good fallacy
The US views trade improvements or combating climate change as a public good, in which everyone participates and everyone benefits – like paying taxes. But this is not strictly true. The least expensive solution, although not the most moral, is to be a parasite. Let everyone else pay their taxes if you can legally get away with not doing so. Or in this case, everyone else can pursue whatever climate change program they want and China just has to devise some minimal steps, which are long-standing or difficult to verify, that will somehow appease the international community. Let everyone else liberalize trade and you can pursue a mercantilist strategy.
The seduction of engagement
A version of Stockholm Syndrome encourages China’s tendency toward a minimalist strategy. It is not that the US agrees or even sympathizes with the Chinese position, but even so there is a seduction underway. With a long career of success, it would be an unusual public failure if US negotiators were left with an empty response from China. It is difficult to absorb this bad news and it is easier to make excuses, claim a partial victory and let China off the hook.
Therefore, neither Kerry, Trump, Paulson, nor Clinton could easily say “We got next to nothing for our efforts.” They are more likely to describe a mixed outcome: “We knew that engagement with China would be a long-term process and that no government acts quickly on these important issues.”
China, unsurprisingly, plays into this psychology, adjusting its offer to the minimum it can present and still allowing the US to claim that it has made marginal progress. Thus, they commit to Kerry not to accept any more foreign financing for their coal-fired power plants, which implies some type of restriction. But China continued to expand coal power without any foreign financing. This is a classic example of an empty gesture, and Kerry is left with little else to hold on to. Depending on how cynically you’d like to interpret this, not only did the Kerry mission fail to get China to help with climate change, but by politely engaging with them as they expanded coal-fired capacity, their mission gave them diplomatic cover for them to take the wrong turn. path.
Nationalism and bureaucratic inertia
One of the founding reasons for the People’s Republic of China was defense against foreign demands. Issues are often perceived through a nationalist lens, even when there is no such intention. Thus, a common Chinese criticism of the US climate position is that China is now the fastest growing industrialized economy in the world and that the West wants to punish China for its success. With this line of reasoning, reacting against the USA is patriotic.
Bureaucratically, if US demands are unlimited, China has an incentive not to respond to any of them. The US can never be placated. The nature of US society is that it is always in missionary mode. There are always new ideas that others need to act on. China sees no specific goodwill or satisfaction generated by adhering to U.S. demands. Better to just respond with minimal offers.
Often in government, doing nothing is easier and less risky than doing something. No one in government is looking for new ideas, new jobs, new projects or dissatisfied national constituencies.
How to get it right
The US tends to look at the underlying principle. China tends to look at economic costs and benefits. The US tends to take a maximalist position, paying attention to national constituencies. China tends to act incrementally and, at the very least, is encouraged to downplay the issue. The US tends to ignore the time horizon. China is sensitive to immediate and short-term results. Given these divergent approaches to climate change, US negotiators need to look beyond repeating the substance of the argument and think more about tactics. It is unlikely that simply engaging in the substance will produce better results. Perhaps if we want China to move forward on an issue, be it climate change or fentanyl precursors, the US needs to step back.
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