Time for less jaw-jaw with China

White House/Pete Souza

President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao reach out to shake hands after a press conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Nov. 17, 2009.

Article Highlights

  • Washington has convinced itself that Sino-U.S. relations are threatened if it's not in constant contact.

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  • Beijing knows exactly what Washington is saying, and isn't buying any of it.

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  • Some longtime observers of military relations note that the Chinese military hate their American counterparts.

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  • When Xi Jinping takes over, he should know that any discussion with the new US President will be of the highest importance.

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Washington has caught itself in a "jaw-jaw" trap with Beijing. It has convinced itself that Sino-U.S. relations are threatened if it's not in constant contact. Yet the truth is such dialogue raises unrealistic expectations. China's tongue-lashing of a U.S. diplomat 10 days ago over the mildest criticism of its militarization of the South China Sea has yet again exposed the limits of diplomatic engagement. It is little use trying to keep talking when it is always a one-sided conversation.

While Churchill's dictum that jaw-jaw is better than war-war is undoubtedly true, dialogue for its own sake is no assurance of building stable ties either. U.S. administrations, both Democratic and Republican, have spent decades talking with their Chinese counterparts. From presidential summits to the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue, and from sideline meetings at global gatherings to military visits, the two countries interact in a dozen different ways.

By now, it should be clear to both just how starkly different their values and world views are. Yet Washington continues to seek more opportunities to talk, as if just one more roundtable meeting will break through the logjam of problems besetting the relationship. The U.S. government is like the proverbial American tourist overseas, who believes that if he only speaks loudly and slowly to someone with no grasp of English, he'll eventually be understood.

Beijing knows exactly what Washington is saying, and isn't buying any of it. Consider the results of more than six years of the highest-level annual dialogues. In July, China vetoed U.N. sanctions against Syria's Bashar Assad, while it regularly resists stronger sanctions against Iran's nuclear program. Meanwhile, more than a decade of military-to-military ties has done nothing to dent China's double-digit increase in its defense program or development of systems designed to attack the U.S. military.

Other engagement is similarly unsuccessful. China's inclusion into the World Trade Organization has failed to better protect U.S. intellectual property rights. Nor has exposure to American values by hundreds of thousands of Chinese students made any change in China's political system.

And still, those skeptical of pointless dialogue are labeled as unsophisticated ideological reactionaries who want to stoke greater tension with China to justify increased defense budgets, or some such nefarious purpose. The votaries of dialogue lecture that they're being realistic in trying "give-and-take" with China. In their view, America must endlessly try to package its message right or make Beijing understand that becoming a responsible global actor is in its best interests.

Yet talking without purpose is not realism, it is idealism. Beijing understands that perfectly well, which is why it has made Sino-U.S. dialogue the ends, and not a means to better understanding. In its current form, the structure of U.S.-China diplomatic interaction is a bridge to nowhere because it allows Beijing to keep Washington focused solely on the next round of talks as opposed to actually trying to solve problems.

Worse, such talk may actually be damaging. Each annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue absorbs the energies of hundreds of officials, raises expectations and invariably results in no material progress. This leads to growing cynicism on the part of U.S. officials and increased skepticism from Congress.

Similarly, some longtime observers of military relations between the two sides note that the Chinese military hate their American counterparts, resent being forced into yet another round, and resist ever more strongly any attempts by American officers to have them reveal basic operating information, let alone deeper strategic-level intentions. Yet they do so on orders from Beijing, which wants to keep Washington happy. Nor have American bromides over human rights done anything but to make China resentful of U.S. interference.

The supporters of dialogue are right in saying the U.S. needs to have lines of communication with China. But that's different from the cycle of "dialogue dependency" that currently afflicts the relationship, and has to be broken.

A better path is to talk only when there is something necessary and valuable to talk about. This means seriously questioning whether to continue with the Strategic and Economic Dialogue and most military meetings.

So let whoever is U.S. president in 2013 make a New Year's resolution to cut out the meaningless jaw-jaw. When China's new leader, Xi Jinping, takes over, he should know that any discussion he has with President Romney or Obama will be of the highest importance—and not a photo-op as was the case with Hu Jintao's U.S. visit in early 2011. Or America's chairman of the joint chiefs should only be sent to engage his Chinese counterpart when there is a clear signal that Beijing has a serious agenda for reducing military tension in the South China Sea.

Stability in Asia may well be achieved for a longer period of time if China understands that the United States will not be distracted by shiny baubles like an annual dialogue. Less frequent meetings will help Washington articulate its opposition clearly, and may even help recognize Beijing's interests better. Most of all, this will stop America from using dialogue as a substitute for more serious action, and hence signal to China that its bad behavior won't just result in another summit meeting.

Mr. Auslin is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for wsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @michaelauslin


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