If you’ve bothered to read, watch, or listen to the post-post-Obama-in-China commentary over the last forty-right hours, you’d be excused for thinking that the Presidential visit had just closed a tumultuous chapter in the history of Sino-US relations. And, in fact, that’s precisely how many observers – a good portion of them glad to have anything and anyone associated with the Bush Administration – swept out of the way, feel. There’s only one problem with this view of the new era in Sino-US relations: under the Bush Administration, especially its second half, the Sino-US relationship improved markedly. In fact, even some of the harshest critics of Bush’s foreign policy adventures will concede – when pressed – that Bush (who visited China four times – more than any other President – and held 19 face-to-face meetings with Hu Jintao) ran, on balance, a sympathetic China policy with Clark Randt, his ambassador. At a minimum, the Chinese media understood and understand it; take, for example, this 2007 China Daily interview with Randt on the occasion of the Strategic Economic Dialogue, and – in its last paragraphs – the list of exchanges and partnerships. Or, for that matter, this January 2009 interview with Randt, in which he uses language not unlike that being wielded by the Obama administration, now.
So why the “new era” revisionism? I’m not a Bush defender. But I do believe that some of the coverage of the Obama trip – and its emphasis on a “new era” (best exemplified by this overwrought piece by Peter Foster in the Daily Telegraph) – is motivated by Bush fatigue, and a sympathetic desire to embrace Obama’s unilateralist diplomacy. Fine and good. But let’s be straight about it and – at the same time – not dismiss as “horse race afficionados” those who wonder whether it’s reasonable to expect some immediate benefits for the effort.
Sure, Obama was justified in wanting to show proper respect to his Chinese hosts, but while Obama and his aides demonstrated their mastery of “how to give face to Chinese leaders” in pursuit of their new diplomacy, the Chinese leadership seems to have forgotten the rules for “giving face to American leaders:” that is, they didn’t bother to give Obama a single accomplishment or deal that he could tout on his way out of Beijing. I’m not talking about Iran, currency revaluation, or Copenhagen; I’m talking about, hell, an agreement to purchase a bunch of Boeing passenger jets, (a traditional gift from Chinese leaders to visiting US presidents, after all). Something. Instead, they sent him empty-handed into the arms of a White House press corps with an institutional memory of Presidential visits to China, – that is, a press corps that surely knows the difference between tangible accomplishments and empty press releases (as does the Chinese leadership, make no mistake).
Naturally, the White House press corps – no dummies, despite efforts by many current and former China-based correspondents to depict them as lost rubes – published and broadcast exactly what they saw: basically, nothing. Seemed reasonable to me, too. But, apparently I’m mistaken. In the last forty-eight hours, the new US ambassador (whom I like), White House officials, and – no surprise – current and former China correspondents have fired back in defense of the Obama Administration, and at a Press Corps which – they suggest – failed to appreciate the importance of things accomplished behind closed (for which press briefings were not scheduled). My friend Jim Fallows has championed this view in several eloquent, pointed posts that make some very convincing arguments (“manufactured failure” is a phrase that I now plan to deploy for my own uses, Jim!).
But I have to take exception with the implicit premise advanced in the “insider’s view” of the Obama trip that Fallows is running on his blog over the weekend. The interview series – conducted with an unnamed person who traveled on the Obama mission – skewers the press for misunderstanding the trip, while providing information to Fallows about what happened behind closed doors — information that wasn’t provided to (most of, at least) the press before or during the trip. In other words, the White House appears to be criticizing the press for not knowing the information that the White House never provided before or during the trip! But really – to whom should the blame be affixed for that oversight? The critical NYT reporters who appear to have irritated the White House? Or the White House?
If – like me – you believe that the fault is with the White House (again, why didn’t the insider make that information available in a call or background briefing before flying to Shanghai?), then you probably agree with the White House press corps that the China visit was a political failure. Whether or not that’s the correct, long-term view to take of Obama’s outreach is something that all of us – critics and sympathizers – will have to wait to be revealed in due course. But it’s certainly a reasonable position, and one that doesn’t deserve the condescending and often ill-informed “you just don’t understand China, you don’t understand proper diplomacy” sniping coming from the White House.
My own background source, someone with long experience in China (who wasn’t on the trip), assessed the occasion this way: “Yes, a new era in Sino-American relations: The Chinese put Obama in his place, that is, captain of a foundering ship that must inevitably make way for the Chinese juggernaut on straight course for ever increasing prosperity and influence, all foreign ports beckoning to it.”
That’s what I saw, too.