James Fallows’ page at The Atlantic should be the first port of call for anyone interested in a balanced perspective of what’s up with China. Fallows is one of the most well-connected, respected, fair-minded, and knowledgeable China commentators out there. Which is probably why a member of Obama’s Asia delegation contacted him to set the record straight on the spreading of a false perception of failure following the US president’s recent China visit.
As Fallows was already on the record as being displeased with the negatively skewed American press coverage of the Sino venture, he was the perfect recipient of the inside scoop. Some of the insights (see here, here, and here) are both revealing and fascinating, providing some real money quotes about the difficulties of negotiating the big issues with China.
Below are a few samples of the what was really happening on inside, both on the run-up to, and during, the China visit :
Administration hopes for the trip
“In thinking about the trip, the things we were trying to accomplish were all basically long term things. We were not looking for ‘deliverables’ or one-day stories. You’ve now got eight or nine countries among the G20 that are Asia-Pacific countries. The historic shift of power and influence from West to East is reflected in that number.
“Obama is very focused on global issues, things like climate change, financial imbalances, non proliferation, energy issues. We saw all the countries on this trip as players on those global issues. Of course China is important in particular, but also Korea and Japan and the ASEAN countries. So we saw this as a way of developing relationships that would be helpful to us as we tackled these issues coming down the road.
DPRK and Iran
“In the joint statement, the Chinese did in fact commit to seeking resumption of Six Party Talks at an early date. They agreed to that principle, and they were pretty robust in their insistence that they care about the denuclearization of North Korea. In fact they more than anyone else have reasons to be troubled by the program. The missiles may not be aimed at China, but they are right next to China. So our perspectives are not identical, but on North Korea, we’re doing pretty well.
“Iran has been more difficult, and will probably become a more sensitive issue. On the one hand, they get it. But as a matter of principle they don’t like sanctions and are concerned about their energy supplies, and they always like to free-ride. If the Russians are on board they will be on board too. At the end of the day, I expect the China will be on board. There may be some foot-dragging about specifics of a resolution, depending on how draconian it is.
“Discussions with the Chinese just don’t offer dramatic breakthrough moments. It’s water on a stone. They don’t reveal their Eurekas to you. While you’re there you get fairly predictable responses. Next time you go back and get a little different treatment.”
Town hall meeting
“We negotiated endlessly against a very difficult Chinese government on the issue. Their intransigence tells me several things. It was the day before the meeting with Hu Jintao, and there were uneasy about what might be said in a live format. ["Surprise" = "unacceptable risk" in many official Chinese dealings.] This was also a townhall format of a type they had never had before. We wanted to have 1000 or 1500 people. They said No. Security problems, and so on. So, we got to 500. We insisted on live streaming. Endless fights on that. Then live TV. Endless fights. And questions from the internet. Huge fights over who would pose them and who would screen. There wasn’t a single aspect of the meeting that wasn’t hard fought.
“It was tortured enough that we thought about pulling the plug. At the end of the day we decided to go through. The point is that on the Chinese side, this showed more than the usual anxiety. I think there was a genuine anxiety about the possible… force of Barack Obama. I would say a word short of “subversive” or “destabilizing.” But something profoundly disturbing to their system of government and control. The anxiety was a tribute to the kind of inspirational force he has.”
This represents just a little of what is offered by The White House insider. Tomorrow, James Fallows promises a final installment. I thoroughly recommend tuning in.