Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Obama's Tribute Mission to China

Barack Obama is scheduled to visit China in November.  I suppose the hope is that it will be a sort of victory lap.

In a recent article, Orville Schell neatly summarizes the expectations going into the trip:

Will the Western democracies ever be able to accept China as it is, the better to deal with the host of new global problems that menace us all, like climate change, pandemics, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation?

("China Strikes Back!" in The New York Review of Books) Schell's article is largely devoted to how embarrassingly wrong trips to China can go, a case in point being Jimmy Carter's recent visit there.

Now, I'm no Jimmy Carter or Barack Obama, but I've also made plenty of high-expectation trips to China. Even small fry like me can have our hopes dashed in excruciating ways.

A foreigner travels to China, seeking advantage
(camel optional)
Tang dynasty
It seems to me that the best way for Obama's November trip to meet expectations, is to model it on the kind of visit that the Chinese like: a tribute mission.

As I recently wrote about elsewhere, historians have observed that in many different examples of relations with (nearby) neighbors, traditional Chinese rulers exhibited little interest in outright control or even material advantage, but did angle successfully to obtain nominal submission, accompanied by explicit, universally readable symbolism. The classic form this took was the tribute mission, in which ambassadors came and offered gifts to China -- frequently resulting in the receiving of substantially greater gifts from the rulers of China. (See The Chinese World Order: Traditional China's Foreign Relations, edited by John K. Fairbank.)

In fact, Schell comments on this exact institution:

China’s new power now enables it to resist almost all forms of foreign pressure. When visitors like Carter now arrive from “barbarian” lands, China’s top officials would far prefer to confine them to something like the old dynastic system of “tribute” (jingong), which prescribed strict rules for visiting foreign emissaries from subsidiary countries like Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Burma. Such ambassadors were allowed to come to Beijing, await an imperial audience, proffer their ritual gifts to the Son of Heaven as “tribute,” and then quickly leave. Never were they accorded equal status, because, after all, there were no powers “equal” to China, only lesser ones.

Orville Schell seems to rue this new (old) stance on the part of the Chinese. But might it not be a way for the U.S. to face reality?

What Obama Should Bring

What would be an appropriate form of tribute for a U.S. mission to bring to China?

The first thing that leaps to mind is "an aircraft carrier." China has been modernizing its navy, and giving a ship would be the perfect way to let China know that we welcome their desire to be in this -- as in everything else -- just like us. (Besides, we have so many of them just lying around . . . !)

Boat of Purity and Ease (Qing Yan Fǎng)
Summer Palace in Beijing, China.
On second thought, however, this might have some negative associations -- I'm thinking of the marble boat that the Qing emperor paid for with money that was supposed to go for naval development in the 19th century. Best avoid the topic of ships . . . .

Perhaps the same intent can be communicated with a gift of something intangible.  I'm thinking perhaps some kind of signals intelligence sharing? This could have numerous advantages.

For one thing, it could serve as a veiled apology for continuous U.S. spy plane activity along China's coast - with the associated incidents that engenders.

It could also serve as a veiled apology for U.S. spying on China that was revealed by Edward Snowden. (Oh yeah, people in China still remember that!)

Perhaps more important than either of these points, however, is that intelligence sharing fits with Chinese ideas of what modern day allies do for each other. And it is abstruse enough that China can spin it in whatever way they wish -- no one can kick the tires.

What Obama Should Expect to Get

The great thing about tribute relations with China is that the visiting country usually garners gifts whose value is well in excess of those they presented. What might Barack Obama expect in return?

Friends and acquaintances know that I have long been angling for a team of expert Chinese landscape designers to come to Chicago and recreate the famed garden from the classic book, Dream of the Red Chamber. (And Chicago is Obama's home town.) But perhaps I am being selfish . . . . 

Siberian weasel
China has been very successful with high-speed rail. And the U.S. needs high-speed rail. (Now don't you wish we had given them an aircraft carrier?)

Perhaps the perfect gift for China to bestow on Obama and his delegation would be some of the precious kolinsky brush hair that is produced in China.  Kolinsky is world renowned for its fineness and softness, and sells for hundreds of dollars a pound. It's the perfect raw material for making the precision brushes used by technicians to clean and polish the camera lenses on the bellies of Obama's killer drones.

Luckily, the Siberian weasels that kolinsky hair comes from are no longer considered endangered. (Not that anyone would let that stand in the way of the market for drone camera lens polishing brushes.)

It Cuts Both Ways

Lest anyone think that what I am describing is a reversal of roles, or some kind of come-down for the United States, let me hasten to say that it cuts both ways.  That is, in the modern version of tributary diplomacy each party eventually gets to play both roles: a China tribute mission will come to the U.S. bearing gifts someday soon, with the expectation of receiving an even greater boon from their host. Where Orville Schell emphasizes that under pre-modern tributary relations there were no powers “equal” to China, only lesser ones, I think the necessary emphasis today should be on no powers “superior” to China -- leaving each to draw their own conclusions about "equality."

What about the big issues to which Schell points? Aren't there important bilateral agreements to be signed?

World Nuclear Weapons Stockpiles
(click to see full size image)
(Source: Ploughshares Fund)
In most of those areas, the best thing the U.S. could do is to take the log out of its own eye before asking for China to take the speck out of its eye.

* China is dealing with minority unrest in several areas, most notably in ethnic Uighur (and Muslim) Xinjiang province. While that unrest cannot be laid totally at the feet of the U.S., it is certainly the case that the insurgencies that the U.S. has stirred up in the Mideast and Central Asia since 1990 have complicated China's domestic politics.

* China would like nothing better than to cut its carbon emissions. By all means, let the U.S. demonstrate how this can be accomplished -- while maintaining standards of living at the same time, if you please --  and China can be counted on follow the U.S. lead (as in so many other areas of development).

* China has nuclear weapons, it is true. But their arsenal is minimal. Again, let the U.S. demonstrate that it is serious about nuclear disarmament -- if not fully living up to its obligations under article 6 of the NPT, at least bringing its stockpile down to just 5 or 10 times the Chinese number -- and China can be counted on follow the U.S. lead.

The U.S. is not in a position to chide China.  While there is a profound need for advocacy on behalf of dissidents in China, the U.S. government is the least qualified of anyone to engage in that advocacy.

Related posts

China is new and different and complicated. Thinking seriously about it may require more of our brains than we have been prepared to devote to it. We may have to get used to ideas that require more than 140 characters to express.

(See Figuring Out China: The Struggle Continues )

The United States may set the standard for human desire -- for the mindless pursuit of the bright and shiny object -- but, heaven knows, China is not to be outdone.

(See China and USA - Like a Moth to the Flame)

How do you formulate a statement that can somehow convince the United States to eliminate its threatening nuclear weapons?  How do you formulate the 10th request? Or the 100th? Knowing all the time that the United States is in the position -- will always be in the position -- to say, "No" ?  At what point does it dawn on you that the United States will never give up its nuclear weapons, because it has the power and the rest of the world doesn't?

(See 360 Degree Feedback in New York (2014 NPT Prepcom and How the World Views the United States))

The U.S. narrative goes something like this: Somebody "bad" (e.g. ISIS) is doing bad stuff . . . . The U.S. wants to "help" -- without overcommitting. We'll just start with a few advisers (to instruct, not to fight) and a few drones (to survey, not to kill) . . . .One thing leads to another and there's yet another fight. (Lucky we were there . . . )  Does it every occur to us that we've got the narrative (and the causality) backwards?

(See Drones, ISIS, and Permawar )

Even if the current Obama administration approach of releases were to succeed in bringing about the release of everyone at Guantanamo, it would not have begun to address the wrong that has been committed.

(See US to its Humans Rights Violations Victims: "Shut up and take what you're given!" )

The problem: the U.S. "pivot to Asia."

The opportunity: asking ourselves, "What would we do differently if we revised our myths of Asia?"

(See U.S. Militarism in Asia: THINK DIFFERENT!)

Barack Obama and Xi Jinping were together in California about a year and a half ago. I have a mental image of Obama and Xi, sitting around with nothing to talk about -- at least after the much-touted cybersecurity topic turned uncomfortable in the midst of the firestorm over the Snowden leaks about NSA domestic surveillance . . . .  "Hey, how about that global warming, huh?"

(See Two Sides to the Obama-Xi Bargain on HFCs )