Diplomacy is the art of discreetly convincing other nations to do things you want them to do by convincing them it’s in their best interests. The deft French have turned diplomacy into an art form, both in foreign and boudoir affairs.
Few, by contrast, would accuse the Bush Administration of any diplomatic finesse. To the contrary, the current administration more often than not acts with all the subtly and tact of an angry bull in a china shop.
The latest example was the visit to Washington by President Hu Jintao of China. Watching this event made me squirm in embarrassment over the Bush Administration’s diplomatic ineptitude and outright rudeness.
Building and sustaining good relations with China is and will remain America’s most important foreign policy challenge for the next decade. Historically, the emergence of new powers that force change on the strategic status quo has always been a time of maximum danger and the primary generator of major wars.
Managing China’s arrival as the world’s second superpower will demand consummate diplomatic skills. The United States must devise ways of living with China’s economic competition, surging demand for resources, and inevitable growing geopolitical influence in Asia and the western Pacific while avoiding confrontation. Two highly nationalistic, muscular, and assertive great powers must somehow learn to co-exist.
President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington was a grand way not to build a positive, fruitful relationship. First, it was not even a state visit, the type usually afforded heads of state. The visit was downgraded to an economy-class event known as an "official visit." This was a huge insult and major loss of face for President Hu and 1.2 billion Chinese. I was surprised that Hu did not cancel the visit.
But it got worse. The White House did not even give an official dinner for Hu and his entourage, but a luncheon. This may sound trivial, but in the world of diplomacy — or business, for that matter — such an act is a clear sign of the status of the visitor. To give a mere lunch for the leader of the world’s most populous nation that holds close to $200 billion in US debt was a diplomatic outrage and a slap in the face.
Why was the Bush Administration so grossly disrespectful? First, to please its Christian fundamentalist core supporters — known as "theocons" — who are strongly anti-Chinese because of Beijing’s suppression of various Christian sects.
Second, because US East Asia policy is still being made by the same extremist neoconservatives who fabricated the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and are waging an anti-Muslim jihad from the White House, Pentagon and US media.
They are bent on putting China and the US on a collision course, believing that US military power will be able to intimidate China and keep its influence penned up on the mainland. This is an extremely dangerous idea that could easily lead to a future Sino-American conflict.
President Hu, noted for blandness and platitudinous speeches, showed no reaction to President Bush’s slight, not even when a Falun Gong protestor disrupted the welcoming addresses. But in private, the Chinese must have been furious by the bargain-basement reception and convinced that the protestor’s interruption was sanctioned by the Americans.
Nor did Hu show any outward reaction to Bush’s lectures on human rights. China’s record in this regard is terrible, but public hectoring is not the way to motivate the proud, prickly Chinese to change their ways. Anyway, President Bush should be the last person to criticize other nations over human rights abuses after revelations of the horrors of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, kidnappings and the CIA’s secret torture camps.
When confronted by US demands that China force North Korea into giving up its nuclear weapons, Hu might have fired back by demanding the US force Israel to get ride of its huge nuclear arsenal, thereby halting a budding Mideast arms race.
Or Hu could have told Americans who scolded him about the artificially low exchange rate of China’s yuan to deal with their own reckless credit binge and gargantuan deficits first. As for Washington’s complaints that China was being too aggressive in seeking oil and other resources around the world, Hu might have reminded his hosts that America consumes three times more energy than China, and invaded Iraq, among other reasons, to grab more oil.
Regarding US claims that China is spending too much on its military, Hu could have noted that US defense spending amounts to 50% of the world’s total military spending, and while the US 7th Fleet cruises off the China coast, China’s navy keeps to the littoral of the western Pacific.
But Hu was too polite, and kept smiling without relent in spite of losing a great deal of face in Asian eyes. He and his entourage must have returned to China with the feeling that the US was still determined to dominate rather than cooperate, and that China had better keep building up its military power.