Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has stated that China and the U.S. are starting a dialogue on issues of counter-terrorism. This reveals the nature of the Chinese / American relationship regarding foreign issues.
Indeed, each country’s respective foreign policies are a result of very different domestic pressures and political goals. China’s foreign policy is based solely on its need for resources as a result of government pressure in sustaining large domestic growth. Therefore it’s no surprise that its official line on doing business in Africa, in particular in Angola, Republic of Congo, Sudan, and Nigeria, is based out of respecting sovereignty by separating politics from economics. Any condemnation by human rights groups or governments of China investing in areas of conflict where conflict diamond mining is taking place, or child soldiers or workers are being used is usually met with a Chinese response that sovereignty must be respected and it’s not their right to interfere.
The United States on the other hand is finding its population to be more interested in domestic policies than foreign policy, a trend that is a post-Cold war phenomenon. This is strengthened by the media that covers issues outside of America’s border in a specific framing of an event and in a minute time frame. A good example is the framing of the crises in Somalia in the early nineties as a humanitarian crisis. This caused the U.S. mandate to be very specific and limited when it decided to intervene and failed to grasp the political and sociological origins of the crisis. The American population therefore did not have a realistic grasp of what the conflict was, and as images were displayed of a U.S. soldier’s body being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, there was heavy pressure from Congress to send the boys home. A lack of interest in world affairs makes it hard for the United States to produce a concrete foreign policy, as Henry Kissinger has observed, and produced a dichotomy, in that what the U.S. promises may not be what it delivers after pressure from Congress has been applied. Therefore to use a term coined by Joseph Nye Jr, the U.S.’ soft power is also undermined when it proves that it can’t deliver on promises regarding trade benefits or other economic policies.
Despite these trends in both state’s foreign policies, there is always rhetoric of the two countries needing to work together. After all, China is a rising power and the U.S. is already the superpower, but the question remains, can they cooperate on sensitive issues?
As Hillary Clinton announced in the above linked article, there are a few issues, in which China and the U.S. can agree on. The main one is, and has been since 9/11, counter-terrorism. China’s territory consists of major minority groups who are dissatisfied with their current political and economic situation. From Tibet to the Xinjiang region, China is currently struggling in figuring out how to manage their minority populations who happen to reside in areas of great geopolitical importance. The Tibetan area is a major source of money from tourism and the Xinjiang area is rich in natural resources. Both of these areas constitute large chunks of Chinese territory, and efforts to keep these areas under control are one of Beijing’s top priorities.
Washington is determined to get Beijing to contribute more resources to international problems and convince China to act more sternly against Iran’s nuclear ambitions and North Korea’s irrationality. Issues such as the rule of law, though important, is already the top agenda for many NGOs and the European Union, and as the standard of living in China increases due to its economic performance, political rights will eventually be demanded upon by a rising middle class. Hillary Clinton is wise to realize this trend and therefore focus American / Chinese dialogue on issues that can serve both of their needs, as well as put the U.S. in a position to make an impact. However, the Obama administration has a fine line to walk. It must not give China a carte blanche in how it acts towards its minority populations out of an excuse that cracking down violently to protests is one of their counter-terrorism measures, which occurred when Russia cracked down heavily in the Chechnya region, shortly after Bush declared a war on terror.
China is an important country, but an influential one in the making. The Obama administration has a great opportunity to plant seeds that can contribute to closer relations in the future. But it must not do so out of the cost of complying with Chinese aggressions against their minority populations.