“Fifty years from now, 100 years from now, historians and scholars will judge us based upon whether or not we’re able to establish a strong, permanent and friendly working relationship,” Vice President Joe Biden said today in Beijing, speaking to his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. “There’s no more important relationship that we need to establish on the part of the United States than a close relationship with China.”
Wrong on all accounts, Mr. Vice President.
Historians and scholars will judge the United States on whether it was able to maintain the post-war liberal, international system that led to global prosperity and general peace. This means the most important relationships we need to establish—at this moment and all others—are those with countries that share our goals. And, in any event, telling the Chinese how important they are is just feeding their already-too-big sense of self-importance.
The history of the Obama administration’s relationships with China demonstrates its well-meaning diplomacy has been counterproductive. The president, like most Americans, has assumed the Chinese reciprocate gestures of friendship, but throughout his administration they have generally refused to do so. In fact, in the last two years Washington’s efforts to establish cooperative ties have directly led to Beijing’s belligerent acts.
Let’s replay the videotape. The Obama administration came into office wanting to put relations on a better basis by placating Beijing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton started off the effort in February 2009 by stating that the United States would not let human rights get in the way of more important matters. Chinese leaders were reportedly overjoyed with her remarks. As one Beijing-based analyst reported, Beijing officials were “ecstatic” because her comments confirmed in their minds that America “had finally succumbed to a full kowtow” to China.
We didn’t have to wait long to see the fundamental error of Secretary Clinton’s approach. In the following month, Chinese military planes and naval and civilian craft interfered with two unarmed U.S. Navy reconnaissance vessels—the Impeccable and the Victorious—in international waters in the South China and Yellow Seas. In one of those incidents, the harassment was so serious that it constituted an attack on the United States—in other words, an act of war.
Despite the provocation, all President Obama and Secretary Clinton did was to issue mild statements when Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi visited Washington. Incredibly, in the following month they sent our top naval officer and a destroyer to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese navy. That show of friendship was another mistake. In May, the Chinese again harassed the Victorious in the Yellow Sea.
The Obama administration, unfortunately, did not learn.
Just days before the president’s November 2009 trip to Beijing, Jeffrey Bader, then the top Asia official on the National Security Council, publicly said the United States could not solve any of the world’s great problems without China’s cooperation.
Obama’s trip to China turned out to be a debacle because the Chinese evidently thought that, after Bader’s comments, they had a veto over American foreign policy. Not surprisingly, the summit marked the beginning of a period of Beijing’s belligerence and hostility. During this period, not only did China’s civilian leaders openly work to undermine American interests—something they are continuing to do—its flag officers and senior colonels publicly talked about fighting a war against the United States in the near future.
The ruthlessly pragmatic Chinese respect strength and despise weakness. Biden, by going to Beijing before Xi Jinping came here, looks like a supplicant, something state media is already playing up. Who travels first is significant in Chinese eyes. President Obama went to Beijing before President Hu Jintao visited Washington, by the way.
Although we don’t realize it, the Chinese need us much more than we need them. Last year, 149.2% of China’s overall trade surplus related to sales to the United States. Moreover, we don’t require Chinese money to finance our debt because there are already too many lenders around the world willing to buy Treasury securities. We saw that even on the first trading day after Standard & Poor’s downgrade of federal government debt, when global investors snapped up Treasuries along with gold and Swiss Francs.
So instead of going to Beijing, we should insist on Chinese leaders coming to Washington to explain their predatory trade tactics, their attempts to deny freedom of navigation, their proliferation of nuclear weapons technology to Iran and North Korea, and their unprecedented cyber-attacks on our networks, among other irresponsible acts.
The Chinese just laugh at us when we talk about good relations while they engage in unacceptable behavior. We need to think like they do and realize that less diplomacy would work better than more diplomacy at this time.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of "The Coming Collapse of China" and a columnist for The Daily. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang
Gordon G. Chang is the author of "The Coming Collapse of China." He writes a weekly column at Forbes.com. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.