China, where the new secretary of state arrives is holding talks, is one of the few countries that actually preferred George W. Bush. Leslie H. Gelb on what she’ll say behind closed doors.
There aren’t many places Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel where she’ll be less popular than George W. Bush and his minions—but China is certainly one of them (along with India and parts of Africa).
For the most part, dictators (called disadvantaged democrats by business) prefer Republicans to Democrats. Liberals and “progressives,” as they now often call themselves, are forever bringing up unwelcome subjects such as human rights and the environment. Dictators do not regard these mentions as friendly acts. With Republicans, it’s almost all business. Sometimes, conservatives will also throw in a dash of accusations about dictators in general and China in particular spending far too much money on arms and troops, but that’s sort of business, too.
Clinton will raise human-rights issues like Tibet. However gently she performs this chore, Chinese leaders won’t like it.
Clinton announced that she would address human rights including Tibet. She and the Democrats are, of course, sincere about this issue, but they raised it more just to show the Obama administration cares. However gently or diplomatically Clinton performs this chore, Chinese leaders won’t like it.
Nor did they applaud Clinton’s reminding the world that China has now exceeded the US as the No. 1 emitter of carbon dioxide, the bad global warmer. But when you’re No. 1, you have to learn to take the lumps. Again, Chinese leaders should not fret too much over this. The Obama administration has so much on its foreign and domestic plates that even the politically glorious matter of global warming will have to wait. But Clinton will be back to the Chinese eventually on this subject, and it’s fine to leave the signal.
Clinton’s real push in private—with likely dabs of public rhetoric to prove the seriousness of private words—will be to lay the basis for a future strategic partnership between these two great countries. The pitch will be this: Deep down where they didn’t do business, the conservatives really regarded China as an adversary, as perhaps the one country in the world that could seriously damage American interests. Deep down, the George W. Bush types saw Beijing as gobbling up economic resources and riches and quietly building its armed forces, all for the purpose of supplanting the US as the world’s superpower.
Clinton and her Democratic colleagues don’t really think about China that way. Instead, they like to figure out a path for the two great titans to discuss major issues across the board—political, military, economic, and cultural—and cooperate more fully than in the past. This line is much closer to that of Robert Zoellick, who's now World Bank president and was formerly No. 2 at Condi Rice’s State Department. Clinton will be re-establishing military-to-military talks at mid-levels between the two countries as a step in this overall strategic direction.
Then, there’s North Korea. Clinton already committed the diplomatic error of talking about succession in that monster’s paradise. It was a mistake because protocol requires that leaders perish from this earth before being eulogized. It will displease the psychopaths in Pyongyang to no end, but all will recover in the end for more multilateral talks—once Beijing calms everyone down. Meantime, Clinton is certainly hoping that those military monsters don’t decide to actually fire off some new missiles over Japan. It spoils things, and it is actually worrisome.
Clinton and her Chinese counterparts have a lot to say to one another on the economy, but likely, the Chinese will have more on their money platter to serve. Their economy is in better shape than America’s, and as a huge investor here, they’re very concerned about their money and will want to hear a rendition of exactly what the trillions of dollars Obama will be spending are all about and how Obama intends to pay the bills. They know that, as in the Bush past, they will be asked to lend hundreds of billions on top of the hundreds of billions already unsecured by our securities. But the main conversations on this subject will be with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Overall Economic Honcho Larry Summers.
So far, not bad for Hillary Clinton on this trip. And if she can exit Beijing without having conversations that are too much in-depth, all will be fine. It’s generally not a good idea to have in-depth talks when you haven’t yet figured out your position on most issues. And by position, I don’t just mean the “principles,” but the details that spell the difference between good chats and, well, getting down to business.
Leslie H. Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, former New York Times columnist, and author of Power Rules, to be published by Harper in March.