China Won't Go for the Soft Touch; Touchy-Feely Negotiations Don't Have the Power of 'No'

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 8, 2010 | Go to article overview

China Won't Go for the Soft Touch; Touchy-Feely Negotiations Don't Have the Power of 'No'


Byline: John Lee, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In 1981, a business book appeared on reading lists that was to be a best-seller for the next two decades. Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury advocated nonadversarial negotiation. Key principles included focusing on the problem rather than the person, negotiating using principles rather than exerting pressure and focusing on win-win solutions in any negotiation. Lauded by the sophisticated and the enlightened, Getting to Yes serves as a good summary of the nuanced approach favored by President Obama in managing relations with China. But Getting to Yes is also a good summary of the reason why America's China policy has so far been a failure.

In international affairs, in addition to offering incentives, using power and leverage to create pressure in order to restrain and influence the behavior of other states - especially those that do not share the same strategic objectives or political values - is the traditional approach. This was the unimaginative but effective strategy tacitly adopted by the second-term George W. Bush administration. President Bush enthusiastically supported China's economic rise but significantly deepened strategic relations with allies and partners such as Japan, South Korea, most of Southeast Asia and, increasingly, India - all of which seek economic cooperation with China but remain profoundly suspicious of Beijing's intentions. Importantly, Mr. Bush accepted that there were severe limitations to achieving cooperation on bilateral and regional issues with authoritarian China and hosed down expectations domestically and in Beijing that an enhanced era of collaboration was imminent.

In contrast, Mr. Obama, equipped with a China-centric worldview, has taken a much more ambitious and optimistic view of the possibilities for collaboration with China. When elected, Mr. Obama anointed himself America's first Pacific president, one who would lead a new and enhanced era of cooperation between the United States and China based on engagement and mutual respect. In particular, Mr. Obama explicitly extended China a much more equal global status, arguing that little could be achieved without Chinese cooperation. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton took human rights off the agenda as early as February 2009, and Mr. Obama subsequently sought Beijing's good will in negotiations prior to his November 2009 visit by postponing arms sales to Taiwan and a meeting with the Dalai Lama.

In following the Getting to Yes manual, the administration also adopted the prescription to focus on the problem rather than the person. In this context, Mr. Obama pursued a wishful fiction that the barriers toward genuine partnership, trust and lasting cooperation on issues such as the economy, strategic and military competition, North Korea and Iran had little to do with the Chinese Communist Party's monopoly on political power or China's state-led political economy. …

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