Beijing on the Potomac

Neil King, Jr. in the Washingtonian (via CDT) has a longish piece on China’s curious position among the Washington establishment and what the Chinese are doing to improve their image and to lobby lawmakers more effectively on issues important to the PRC.

Across the nation’s capital a debate rages, and has for years, over the true nature of China. Friend or foe? Embraceable or best hedged against? Land of opportunity or long-term threat? No other country has loosely arrayed ‘teams’ in Washington that in the simplest of terms are for or against it. In one corner you have the Blue Team, the threat crowd, pessimists at the Pentagon or within Washington’s think tanks-or newspapers-who argue that China looms as the one power determined to take America down a notch both economically and militarily. In the other corner you have the Red Team, derided by the Blues as ‘panda huggers’: certain businessmen, scholars, and State Department types who say that China is mainly about self-advancement and means the United States no harm.

And while the Reds may be on the rise at the moment-witness the ascent at Treasury of a true China-embracer, ex-Goldman Sachs chief executive Hank Paulson-one never knows when sentiment will swing back the other way. ‘The one thing all sides can agree on is that we are missing the definitive empirical proof that either side has figured China out-has divined its innermost nature-and can declare victory.’ That from Michael Pillsbury, a longtime Pentagon adviser on China who is claimed by the Blues, largely loathed by the Reds, but who insists he’s a mix of both-a Purple, let’s say. President Bush himself appears to be a Purple, as does his top diplomat, Condoleezza Rice. Both praise China as a potential partner but look warily at its growing strength.

Working like a madman to tip the balance in China’s favor is the PRC ambassador to the United States, Zhou Wenzhong. The article portrays Ambassador Zhou as a smooth and canny operator for Chinese interests, a smart dresser with a dry wit, and somebody who seems to enjoy the Washington game.

Moving critics into the ‘friend’ column is of course the job of any ambassador. Zhou has overseen an expansion of the embassy’s congressional-affairs office, now at about a dozen diplomats, and has urged his deputies to get out more, be seen, mix it up. China, in turn, has begun to send a much higher caliber of diplomat to Washington, including, most recently, the foreign-policy and Washington expert Su Ge, who ran the congressional shop until he became the ambassador to Suriname last fall.

One result is the fact that Chu Maoming, the embassy’s latest laconic spokesman, actually calls reporters back from time to time or responds to an e-mail. Both are startling developments in the evolution of an embassy long known for its studious silence. Chu has even been known to do lunch and to put forward other embassy officials to do the same. I went on the road with Ambassador Zhou for two days in Iowa in 2005, cruising around in his van, sitting in on meetings. His astonished staff said, without offering clear proof, that it was the first time in the history of China that a foreign reporter had gotten inside a Chinese delegation. Now that’s a long time.

Other signs of the charm offensive aren’t tough to find. Bonnie Glaser, a longtime China scholar at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, marvels at how Chinese diplomats are now taking think-tank types out to lunch;’at places like the St. Regis and the Mayflower,’ she says, adding that the Chinese ‘are becoming much more discriminating in their tastes.’ Glaser has her own principal contact at the embassy, as do most scholars in Washington who specialize in China. ‘He took my whole family out to dinner with his wife and daughter,’ she says. “Completely unprecedented.”

These are just a few excerpts, the whole piece is worth reading in its entirety. The article also includes a down-and-dirty summary of “key” China people in Washington. All things said and done, I’m not really sure what to make of Ambassador Zhou. Is it just more of the same rhetoric but with a nicer tie? Is China developing a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of American policymaking? If so, what does this mean for US-China relations especially with the new congress?

The Discussion: One Comment

Let 1000 tariffs bloom!

February 7, 2007 @ 1:39 pm | Comment

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