Washington is abuzz with flummery purporting to explain why the Chinese are so damned obdurate as of late. (Ah, the inscrutable Chinese.)
For a representative, if credulous, account of this palaver, see Josh Rogin’s story, Has China Realized It Overplayed Its Foreign Policy Hand? Americans, it seems, are bewildered by China’s “increasingly aggressive and arrogant foreign policy.” The only real debate in the Rogin story is whether the Chinese have caught on to what absolutely everyone in Georgetown figured out at least a week ago. (So dreadfully behind, the Chinese.)
The possibility that something else might be going on — you know, the sort of thing that might interest a competent policymaker — is left for others to ponder. Others, like Gregory Kulacki, who writes on the UCS blog All Things Nuclear, that his most recent trip to China’ reveals the importance of Beijing’s domestic dramas in shaping China’s recent foreign policy:
What I’ve discovered in my discussions in China is that the real reason for this lack of engagement is both simpler and more complex than [the debate in Washington].
There is a serious debate now taking place within the Standing Committee of the Politburo – China’s most powerful political body – about the nature of China’s security relationship with the United States. The nine-member Committee must come to a consensus on policies; China is no longer a state with a single powerful leader and a government that rubber-stamps his decisions.
There are currently two factions shaping the internal Chinese debate. One could be described as a “status quo” faction that does not seek major changes in the relationship with the United States. It sees the U.S. as a benign power supporting an international system that is conducive to continued Chinese economic, scientific, and cultural development – despite longstanding contentious, but manageable, disagreements on Taiwan, trade, and human rights.
The other faction, which is less cohesive but more bellicose, believes the United States feels threatened by China’s rapid development and that the U.S. is seeking to contain and constrain it in a variety of ways, including aggravating disputes between China and its neighbors and limiting Chinese access to resources, markets, and technology. These diffuse but potentially volatile anxieties are being employed by a variety of anti-status quo political personalities in the broader internal struggle over China’s future – and the future of the Chinese Communist Party – that is animating the upcoming transition to a new Chinese administration.
The split between these factions within the Committee has led to deadlock. Until the Committee comes to a decision, Chinese officials do not have a policy to guide engagement with the United States. So they are in a holding pattern that is reflected in their interactions with their U.S. counterparts.