China US Politics

Dalai Lama visit shows US-China flaws

[Originally published in The Guardian]

The Dalai Lama’s trip to DC has seen the US and China acting like a dysfunctional couple. They must find ways to co-operate

The controversy surrounding the Dalai Lama’s visit to the White House to see President Obama has highlighted the confrontational politicking that can take place as powerful countries attempt to get what they want. China’s way of trying to get what it wants in this situation (ie cancellation of the meeting) is to bully and issue threats, while the US’s stance has been to ignore China and proceed with the meeting anyway.

This dysfunctional, agitating approach to Sino-US negotiations and communications only continues to erode the relationship between the two countries, which has already been weakened recently as a result of US comments over internet censorship and the sale of arms to Taiwan. This should not become the normal way for the two nations to engage, particularly when it comes to bilateral issues.

If China and the US were a couple, a relationship counsellor would have a lot to say about the way they deal with their differences. There’s no doubt the two nations need each other: China is one of America’s biggest creditors, currently second behind Japan, with some $789.6bn in US government bonds, and the US needs China’s support in places such as Iran and North Korea, as well as on issues like climate change. Some argue that, with the amount of money that China has in the US, the US has more at stake than China. Others argue that the creditor needs the debtor as much as the debtor needs the creditor.

It is perhaps in recognition of this mutual dependence that both countries feel able to engage in this passive/aggressive behaviour, since neither can really afford to lose the other. Whichever way you look at it, any successful relationship requires two parties working together. And, as China’s global power continues to grow and Sino-US relations become even more important than they are already, the way in which the two countries deal with each other will become even more crucial since an inability to deal effectively with bilateral issues will have a deleterious impact on their ability to work together to influence international and multilateral affairs.

Are there not more mature, and productive, ways for countries to negotiate and have their needs met without threats, confrontation or, when all else fails, stand offs? How about partnership, co-operation and mutual understanding? Undoubtedly, there are issues – such as Taiwan, and Tibet, which has sparked this current controversy – on which the US and China have very different, and even conflicting, perspectives. China sees the Dalai Lama as a separatist, for example, while in the past few years President Obama has made strong statements in support of Tibet and the Dalai Lama. However, they must seek an approach that has them working together and looking for and finding common ground.

Partnership and co-operation are what President Obama extended to China from the outset. And, indeed, it appears that his approach didn’t get him too far in the short term: it was China, for example, that damaged the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen. Perhaps now, the Obama administration believes that the honeymoon – just one year into Obama’s presidency – is over.

However, being a partner does not mean being soft. Hillary Clinton’s statement that the US would not allow China’s record of human rights abuses to get in the way of dealing with issues such as trade disputes, for example, is not partnership – that is enabling. At the same time, it is understandable that China would find America’s approach contradictory: talking about co-operating while selling arms to Taiwan does not much seem like co-operation. America must find a way to be a partner and work together with China and still stand firm on important issues without turning it into a zero-sum game.
What the Dalai Lama’s visit has revealed is that the US needs to set a coherent and consistent approach to its relationship with China and continue to foster mutual understanding and co-operation especially when it comes to difficult bilateral issues. The world’s biggest powers can do better than acting like a dsyfunctional couple with communication problems.

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