Beijing Opera comes to Washington

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Stephen Yates
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      Stephen Yates

      Stephen Yates is president of <a href="http://www.dcasiaadvisory.com/">DC Asia Advisory</a>, a business and public policy consultancy established in 2006. The Washington DC-based practice offers a range of services from strategic assessment to campaign strategy to specific business solutions. Fluent in Mandarin Chinese, Stephen Yates has traveled extensively throughout Asia, meeting with government and business leaders in capitals across the region.

      Before opening DC Asia Advisory, Mr. Yates served in the White House as Deputy Assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs from April 2001 to September 2005. During his tenure in government, he was deeply involved in the development and execution of U.S foreign policy priorities in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

      He participated in the transformation of U.S. bilateral relations with Japan, Indonesia, and India; oversaw diplomatically sensitive relations with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China; and handled crises ranging from North Korea to the Sudan, Liberia, Venezuela, and Haiti. Mr. Yates provided direct support to the Vice President and his national security advisor for White House and diplomatic meetings, and represented the Office of the Vice President in senior interagency deliberations.

      A highlight of his tenure includes accompanying the Vice President to the inauguration of President Hamid Karzai in December 2004 following that nation's first democratic elections. Mr. Yates currently is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a board member of the US-Taiwan Business Council, a member of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, and a regular Fox News commentator on US foreign policy.

      Mr. Yates also serves on the board of directors of the Hamilton Foundation, a not-for-profit organization focused on expanding middle market business and employment in developing economies.

      During the 2008 campaign, he served as senior Asia advisor for the Rudy Giuliani Presidential Committee. Mr. Yates previously served as Senior Policy Analyst at the Heritage Foundation from 1996 to 2001, and from 1991 to 1996 he served as an international affairs analyst at the U.S. Department of Defense. He received a Master's degree in China Studies from the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

      A Maryland native, Yates graduated summa cum laude from the University of Maryland at College Park with a bachelor's degree in Chinese Studies. From 1987 to 89, Yates spent two years in southern Taiwan as a church volunteer, immersed in everyday life and culture.

The Obama administration’s approach to China is entirely consistent with establishment foreign policy thinking over the last 40 years, with a few brief exceptions, through Republican and Democrat administrations.

One result is a Chinese government that is no longer simply a menace to its neighbors, but now has the economic influence and military capabilities to extend coercion around the globe. As Beijing’s military and global ambitions grow, and democracy continues to be denied to the Chinese people, the tab from an unwise “bet” on China is becoming clearer.

Forty years ago, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger placed a bet on China’s future direction and the US’s ability to shape it. In essence, the bet was that with increased deference to Chinese leaders and expansive bilateral engagement, over time the differences in our national interests would narrow and opportunities for strategic cooperation would expand.

President Obama and his administration will be singing from the same sheet music next week, as Chinese President Hu Jintao is welcomed to Washington for a state visit. As the music was composed in Beijing 40 years ago, it is surprising how dutifully the American foreign policy establishment continues to sing along.

As part of this opera, we are to suspend disbelief with regard to certain realities and normal practices. China must be treated as an exception, not subject to the demands and responsibilities routinely pressed by us on other major powers. Emphasis should be on symbolism and accommodation before actions and results. Our leaders are advised to shy away from speaking directly, much less publicly, about Chinese shortcomings — such as enabling new nuclear rogues, crushing domestic dissent, coercing neighbors, and distorting global markets.

The theory is that if we’re quiet about our concerns, the Chinese will be more likely to take positive action, as we will have allowed them to save face. The problem is that we’ve been helping China save face for decades and lost track of what we should reasonably expect in return.

Enter Secretary Gates. To help set the tone for next week’s summit, Secretary Gates visited China this week offering nuclear, missile, and space briefings typically only shared with allies. As an added sweetener, he held out the prospect that with improved China-Taiwan relations over time, the US might reconsider the need for arms sales to Taiwan.

True to script, in both instances the US offered concessions in advance of any helpful strategic action taken by China. The Chinese have a history of pocketing such gestures in exchange for happy visits and future talks. This is a taste of what we should expect from the Hu state visit next week.

President Hu comes with the single objective of showing China’s other leaders that he was able to secure proper treatment and respect from the US. The content of meetings doesn’t matter much. Just ensure there is an ample supply of pageantry uninterrupted by Falun Gong, Taiwanese democrats, and Tibetan monks.

The Obama administration is likely to oblige with a great deal of stately hospitality. There is no way the US would ever treat Hu as the Chinese treated Gates, openly testing a major new weapons platform during the visit.

And in return, expect President Obama to get little in return, other than the bill.

The time has come to question this approach. What are our returns on this bet after 40 years? Some good has come of it, for sure, but how much? Enough to merit continuation of the exceptional treatment of China relative to other powers? China is no longer an infant nation. The People’s Republic is now 61 years old. Time for a more mature, more normal relationship.

President Obama needs to press President Hu more forcefully on areas where China’s actions need to change — North Korea, Iran, human rights, and unfair trade practices. And he can’t just do it in private. Otherwise this symbolic bow to rising Chinese power will further weaken the US leadership in Asia and President Obama’s leadership in the world.

Stephen Yates is president of DC International Advisory and former Deputy Assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs (2001 – 2005).