02/22/2012 08:52 am ET Updated Apr 23, 2012

Our Man in Beijing?

When Hu Jintao took over as the leader of China in 2002, U.S. companies welcomed his accession as a “good sign for American business.” Political analysts described Hu as a fourth-generation member of the Communist party leadership who might very well turn out to be a “closet liberal.” Playing it safe, the media tended to portray him as a pragmatic enigma. In the wake of 9/11 and high-level cooperation on counter-terrorism, Hu proved to be a reliable U.S. partner, prompting Colin Powell to remark in 2003 that U.S.-China relations were the best since 1972.

It didn’t take long, however, before the media and the punditry turned sour on Hu. By 2005, The Economist was labeling him a “conservative authoritarian” for tightening party discipline and cracking down on intellectuals. Hu also came under fire for holding firm against the United States around disputes over trade, currency, intellectual property, and human rights. On counter-terrorism, U.S.-Chinese interests converged. But on this issue and most others, Hu turned out not to be a closet liberal at all. And when it came to prosecuting the “global war on terror,” the Bush administration didn’t want a liberal.

Now, with China gearing up for another leadership transition, Hu’s putative successor Xi Jinping has embarked on his own grand tour of the United States. As with Hu, Western sources admit that they don’t know very much about Xi beyond his generally “pro-business” approach. He has a celebrity wife; he doesn’t like corruption; he’s a basketball fan. His father was a Party loyalist until he began to sympathize with the Tiananmen Square protestors. Aside from these tidbits, journalists have been forced to sift through Xi’s U.S. appearances-- his meetings with the Obama administration, his return to the Iowa town he visited 25 years ago, his attendance at an LA Lakers game -- for clues to the new Chinese leader’s true political nature.

Xi Jinping did what he could to frustrate the media. He was careful to tailor his remarks in Washington to satisfy both his Western hosts and his colleagues back home. So, for instance, he spoke of U.S.-Chinese relations as an "unstoppable river that keeps surging ahead" and of Beijing’s willingness to engage with Washington on a broad agenda of issues from counter-terrorism to North Korea. At the same time he was careful to warn his hosts to “respect the interests and the concerns of China.”

This latter point, that China has its own national interests, invariably eludes Western observers no matter how often Chinese leaders repeat it. Sure, a Chinese leader might like American basketball or admire American business. But the essential fact is that he leads a political, economic, and military apparatus dedicated to preserving itself and the country’s territorial integrity. The same can be said for the leaders of most countries, including the United States. Certainly no one in Beijing expects the 2012 U.S. elections to produce an American president who embraces state capitalism, a global trade order that disproportionately favors Chinese economic growth, or a ceding of U.S. military position in the Pacific to the up-and-coming superpower. And yet for some bizarre reason, U.S. observers expect the latest Chinese leader to suddenly tear off his clothes and reveal a Captain America suit underneath.

China’s national interests are perhaps most visibly on display around security issues. During the early Hu years, the discussion in the West centered on China’s “peaceful rise.” More recently, the talk has gotten darker, as pessimists point to China’s recent purchase of an old Ukrainian aircraft carrier, its ambitions in the South China Sea, its confrontation with Japan over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and of course its increased spending on the military. By 2015, according to IHS Jane’s, Chinese military spending will reach $238 billion, more than all the projected spending in the Asian region as a whole.

But there are no real indications that Beijing has abandoned its “peaceful rise” approach. The refurbished aircraft carrier is not terribly impressive (particularly compared to the U.S. Navy’s 10 modern vessels). South Korea and Japan have a similar row over a disputed island, which might lead to the conclusion that it’s Japan, not China, that’s abandoning its “peaceful rise.”

China’s claims to islands in the South China Sea, however dubious, are longstanding and date back to the pre-communist era. And it’s been more than 30 years since China has conducted a significant military intervention overseas, an overall pattern of risk-averse behavior it shows no sign of abandoning. In any case, what might tip the region into conflict is not China’s territorial ambitions but climate change. “As sea temperatures in the South China Sea continue to rise, large quantities of fish will migrate north into even more heavily disputed waters,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Derek Bolton in Shifting Winds in the South China Sea. “As fishermen are forced to follow suit, the probability of future confrontations will increase, raising the likelihood of a more serious conflict.”

The United States, meanwhile, continues to outspend China militarily by at least five-fold and is in the midst of a “Pacific pivot” to reorient its security policy away from the Middle East and toward Asia. Increased U.S. military cooperation with Australia, the Philippines, and even Vietnam makes China nervous. China’s increased military spending is not a happy sign, but the leadership believes it has a long way to go before achieving even rough parity with its major rival. The overarching priorities of Chinese leaders remain nationalist: to keep a vast and fractious country together, maintain influence in Taiwan, and ensure a steady supply of energy through its neighboring regions to sustain high levels of economic growth. Hu and now Xi consistently tell their U.S. interlocutors that closer U.S.-Chinese relations are possible and desirable as long as Washington recognizes these national imperatives.

The underlying threat from China, of course, is not military but economic. Now the second largest economy in the world, China could very well surpass the United States during the next presidential term. Washington complains about unfair trade practices, manipulated currency, and a culture of intellectual piracy. Like all late modernizers following the example of Japan and South Korea, China has realized that making the jump from underdeveloped to developed requires some breaking of the rules.

Critics might point out that China, as an economic powerhouse, is no longer an underdog. But much of China remains underdeveloped. And China’s economic power is not reflected in its voting power in international economic institutions. At both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the United States commands approximately 16 percent of the votes with China much further down the list at around 4 percent. China, in other words, has been invited to the table but is not part of setting the rules of the game. No surprise, then, that it is still bending these rules.

Xi Jinping no doubt has his own thoughts about how to maintain what the Chinese might call the Three Balances: China’s domestic harmony, its relations with the near abroad, and the push-pull dynamic with the United States. He is not, however, that mythic figure that the West hopes that China will one day produce.

Xi is partly his own man, partly a Party man. But he is by no means our man in Beijing.

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