- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

OP-ED:

As the bitter taste of disapproval of the Bush administration begins to fade from the collective memory of Americans and hope filled the National Mall during the Inauguration, many Americans might be surprised to learn of recent headlines written in Chinese national newspapers and magazines. They declare, “Chinese people will miss Bush,” “U.S. China relations: Bush’s brightest foreign policy accomplishment.”

These headlines are descriptive of a nation that has seen its relationship with the United States strengthened to unprecedented levels over the last eight years of the Bush administration.

Although President Bush made many foreign policy mistakes during his tenure, he handled U.S.-China relations quite well. This bilateral relation has never been so stable and close as it was during the last eight years. More importantly, he has established an effective communication and problem-solving mechanism between the two countries. During his term, the two governments created more than 60 dialogue and consultation systems between the various governmental organizations. These organizations began regular closed-door meetings, away from the media’s scrutiny, where relationships could be built that engendered trust and cooperation, effectively solving problems in their early stages.

The two primary areas of concern between the United States and China have consistently been the economy and security. In these two areas, President Bush created a consistent dialogue. Heads of the U.S. financial system and the State Department would meet with their counterparts in person at a minimum of twice a year, once in the United States and once in China.

Several of Mr. Bush’s key appointments on Chinese issues, including ambassador to China and assistant secretary of state, all proved successful. They were intimately familiar with Chinese culture and understood the seemingly endless subtleties of their negotiating behavior. It has been a consensus among China experts in the United States that the Obama administration should learn from this framework, and it is imperative that they learn quickly.

Currently there is no ambassador to China, no senior director in the White House and no assistant secretary for China and East Asia. The vacuum created during the time it takes to appoint new ambassadors should not be taken lightly.

Due to turnover of personnel and changes of administrations, nearly every new U.S. administration has experienced tensions and crises with China in their first year. These situations could all have been averted if in the very early stages of appointing ambassadors and advisers new U.S. presidents located and listened to those who understand Chinese culture and negotiating behavior. The Obama administration should try to avoid the outbreak of clashes during the transitional period. The new administration should appoint its China/East Asia officials as soon as possible and consider continuing the government’s institutional memory.

This need for cultural expertise quickly became apparent late last month when Mr. Obama’s Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, as a nominee for that post, commented publicly on his view that China was manipulating its currency. The Chinese government is usually willing to discuss differences privately, but considers public media scrutiny to be counterproductive. Mr. Geithner, perhaps unwittingly, committed a grave act of disrespect to the Chinese government - one that could take a long time to recover from.

Openly criticizing China is not in itself wrong. However, the Chinese culture does not understand the straightforward style of the “typical American diplomat,” and this form of communication can delay productive steps forward. The Chinese view such comments as hostile, and are seen as an unwillingness to work together.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama would be well advised to find an ambassador who understands both nations’ financial systems, culture and knows how to play the international political game. To that end, I submit what might be considered by many Americans to be a surprising recommendation, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.

The most important component of U.S.-China relations is the economy, and Mr. Paulson’s understanding of the financial world as well as his connection to China is unrivaled. He has traveled to China over 70 times on behalf of Goldman Sachs. His time on Chinese soil has been spent cultivating relationships, understanding the Chinese mentality, and creating the necessary cultural fluency required to build a successful bridge of communication between the two powerful nations.

Mr. Paulson understands both Chinese and U.S. interests and culture, and already has the trust and relationships of decision makers in Beijing and those on Capitol Hill. His appointment, which on its face would appear controversial, could help the United States continue building its relationship with China.

And as we stare down the barrel of a global economic crisis, there is perhaps no more important relationship for the United States to be mindful of than the one with China.

Zheng Wang, assistant professor at Seton Hall University’s Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations, specializes in international negotiations. His book “Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations,” is to be published by Columbia University Press.

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