Obama and the Chinese: Doing the Deal, A Personal Reflection Based on Experience

I find it odd that I’m seeing articles on the left on how Obama’s Asia trip has left many of them disappointed.  For example, this, from Leslie Gelb at the Daily Beast:

President Obama’s nine-day trip to Asia is worth a look back to fix two potent problems, past and future. First, the trip’s limited value per day of presidential effort suggests a disturbing amateurishness in managing America’s power. On top of the inexcusably clumsy review of Afghan policy and the fumbling of Mideast negotiations, the message for Mr. Obama should be clear: He should stare hard at the skills of his foreign-policy team and, more so, at his own dominant role in decision-making. Something is awry somewhere, and he’s got to fix it.

This goes to the whole heart of what diplomacy is all about, and especially diplomacy with the Chinese.

Having done my share of negotiating and business with the Chinese, I can make the following observations:

  1. The Chinese are very focused negotiators.  They have their objectives–especially their long-term ones–clearly in mind when they start.
  2. In common with most non-Americans, the Chinese put a premium on relationship building.
  3. The Chinese are very detail oriented in their approach.  They like to have all of their bases covered and questions answered.  That is, in part, a product of the fact that many of those you sit down across from in China have scientific and technical backgrounds, as opposed to the lawyers who dominate the field here.
  4. Much of what looks like stubbornness or obstructionism in the Chinese is in fact their way of finding out what you’re made of.  If you hang tough, they’ll respect you.  That’s why, with every new American president, there’s always an “incident” involving U.S. armed forces near the Chinese mainland.  They’re just trying to find out what the new occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is all about.
  5. Identify the Chinese “deal breaker” types of difficulties.  (I had to learn this the hard way.)  If they’re not inconsistent with your own objectives, avoid them.
  6. Once all of this is done, and they do have confidence in you, they’ll move to a conclusion.  Not as quickly as we’d always like, but quickly enough.

Having said that, let me make some suggestions, if anyone in the administration is listening (I know I have liberals who are definitely listening):

  1. Obama–and any other American president–is at a disadvantage, because the Chinese know they’ll be gone in eight years (unless Obama finds a way around that.)  With their decent continuity of leadership, they can afford to take a longer view.
  2. The relationship building–and this is something that Gelb points out, in a way–should start with his lower people doing “advance work” before Obama’s visit.  By the time he visits, he can at least finalise something and perhaps make some progress on other things.  The advance work is also necessary to address the Chinese penchant for detail (#3 above.)
  3. Obama needs to get away from this mushy, idealistic concept that diplomacy consists of glad handling and saying nice multicultural nonsense.  People who think in this way have never “done the deal” but they’re the bane of international relations at any level.
  4. He needs to use his political capital to shove away Americans’ impatience for quick results irrespective of the quality of these results.
  5. Obama needs to make up his mind up front (and may have already done so) to dodge the “deal breaker difficulties.”  In terms of international relations, for the Chinese these days they’re threefold: Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.  Things are sweetening a bit with Taiwan, and our President needs to ignore his left-wing crazies on the subject of Tibet and his Muslim leaning tendencies with Xinjiang.
  6. He needs to make up his mind as to what his objectives really are and pursue them.  The thing that bothers me about Barack Obama is that he seems to have bought hook, line and sinker the concept that any exercise of American power is for the bad.  The left has kept this drumbeat up for a half century now and it looks like he’s going to put it into practice.  If that’s the case, then his apparent ineffectiveness in Asia was part of the plan rather than the result of poor planning.  (I don’t see that as much in Hillary Clinton, but she’s not leading this team, either.)

One other personal note: I was blessed with world-class representation in China.  Most of those involved are still with us and, especially in the case of Kissinger Associates’ Paul Speltz, still active in the field of Sino-American relations and commerce (or “cooperation” to use the Chinese term.)  Obama’s team would do well to draw on the experience of those who have really “done the deal” and ignore those who have not.

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