Xi Jinping

Turning a toast into a roast is poor diplomacy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 February, 2012, 12:00am


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Don't get me wrong. Abject kowtowing is no way to forge an honest and productive relationship with anyone, including China. The US has differences with Beijing - and Beijing with the US. Covering them up will allow them to fester.

The Chinese are unhappy with the US because they view America as having raised the military stakes in the Pacific region. For its part, the US government is unhappy for a host of reasons, including human rights in China, intellectual property theft and obstruction of collective action on Syria.

Solving such difficult issues may take almost forever. Only nationalistic partisans on either side can honestly believe that the other is wholly wrong and they are wholly right.

So how should the bilateral relationship proceed? The answer is: cautiously but honestly, because so much is at stake; but never much publicly. And so here we raise the troubling case of this week's official visit of Vice-President Xi Jinping .

He was invited to the Oval Office by President Barack Obama, in part as a return favour for the gracious treatment accorded Vice-President Joe Biden during his August swing through China.

It was during a 'toast' at a State Department lunch this week that Xi got his not-so-funny 'roast' - and from Biden of all people. It wasn't that the issues raised were inappropriate. It was that they were raised so publicly, and so ungraciously, during this official event.

It was difficult not to feel that the US administration's public edginess was for domestic political effect. With the showdown election only a few months away, the Obama administration had to show - but whom exactly? - that it could be tough on China. So, who; the Republicans? That's not going to work. Independent voters? It's hard to imagine anyone who's truly anti-China voting for a Democratic president because he appears during re-election season to be tough on China.

So who is the Obama administration fooling? Maybe they think it's appropriately muscular of them to have public airings of differences with China.

This is all silly and unnecessary. Both superpowers should be confining their differences to the intense private sessions provided amid the routine of their ongoing bilateral discourse; but in public they should almost exclusively emphasise areas of agreement or at least commonality.

The stability of the international political system depends on a confident and civil relationship between Beijing and the US. Loose political lips can create serious problems of their own. Who needs that?

Professor Tom Plate is Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University, editor-in-chief of Asia Media and author of Giants of Asia