- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 8, 2010

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. As part of a “reach out” policy aimed at regimes with alternative political systems, Mr. Obama offered to press the “reset” button on pre-existing relations. In a reference to Russia, which could just as easily apply to China, Mr. Obama shocked foreign affairs practitioners by questioning the theoretical orthodoxy that power is indeed a zero-sum game.

These gestures are designed to remove tensions or ignore existing concerns in order to deepen the bilateral relationship with China and increase the chances of securing a better result in negotiations with Beijing. Critics in Washington have subsequently chided the administration for coddling a potential foe and rejecting friends. In return, China has offered nothing in terms of concessions sought by Washington and bilateral relations with Beijing are worse than they were during the “less ambitious” Bush years. Additionally, Washington has lost credibility with partners such as Tokyo and New Delhi (although these are retrievable) and China has emerged with an enhanced perception of its place in Asia and its leverage over America.

Mr. Obama cannot be blamed for all aspects of recent tensions with China. The likelihood is that many serious problems with China will emerge no matter the approach taken as various factions of pragmatic hard-liners have been in power since the post-Tiananmen clean-out of liberals. But this is precisely the reason why adopting a “Getting to Yes” approach should occur only between close strategic and political partners. Mr. Obama has learned the harsh lesson that appealing to common principles and arriving at a win-win solution assumes two things that do not yet apply to China: first, that power and influence between both countries is not a zero-sum game; and second, that the primary barrier to greater cooperation is “misunderstanding” rather than disparate values and interests.

With Washington dueling over issues such as Taiwan, Tibet, Google and the Chinese currency, the rhetoric has gotten tougher. But a change in style is not the point. Mr. Obama should heed the advice of 19th-century German statesman Otto von Bismarck: Politics is the “art of the possible.” This is the year for lowering expectations for Chinese cooperation, looking first to friends, coordinating potential sources of leverage over Beijing, and learning from Google and occasionally simply telling Beijing “no.” Paradoxically, if this is done, relations with China likely will improve.

John Lee is a foreign policy fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington. He is the author of “Will China Fail?” (Centre for Independent Studies, 2007).

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