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In China, confidence clouded by apprehension

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By David Ignatius
Wednesday, December 8, 2010

BEIJING

The paradox of a rising China - a country that wants to play a bigger role in global affairs but suffers from a combination of lethargy and stage fright - was on display here at a conference with Chinese officials.

"China needs to be less of an observer and more of an actor" on major issues such as North Korea and currency adjustments, one senior Chinese official declared during the meeting. "When we're on the stage, we shouldn't turn our back on the audience, as if we're part of the audience."

And yet, when it came to proposing solutions during a meeting last Friday with American and European visitors, the Chinese were cautious. Officials didn't disagree that North Korea and the imbalances in the global economy were big problems. But their recommendations focused on discussion rather than action - to the point that harmonious talk seemed an end in itself.

China's prescription for North Korea is "dialogue, dialogue, dialogue," Jun Fu, executive dean of the school of government at Beijing University, said at a news conference after the meeting. That approach frustrates State Department officials, who think Beijing is privately fed up with North Korean brinkmanship, according to a State Department cable made public by WikiLeaks.

The conference was an unusual effort to explore areas of common interest and, potentially, joint action. It was hosted by the Central Party School, a leadership training center headed by Xi Jinping, who is slated to be China's next president. The other sponsors were the Aspen Strategy Group (of which I'm a member) and the Aspen Institute Italia.

"This isn't a situation where we're talking past each other, but we don't seem to have the ability to act together" despite "a surprising degree of common interest," said Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state who is now a Harvard professor and director of the Aspen Strategy Group. On North Korea, he noted, China has the most leverage but "seems reluctant to use it" and "isn't meeting the test yet" as a security partner.

The meeting was held on the campus of the party school in the suburbs of Beijing. The school's bland courtyards contrast with the gaudy architecture of the new downtown, clustered with fancy hotels and luxury boutiques.

The anxieties that accompany China's new wealth were apparent in a story that ran in the official China Daily on the morning of our meeting. It described the trend among the country's new rich to hire private bodyguards. Sometimes, it seems, gaining wealth just makes people more nervous about losing it.

Several Chinese officials who attended the not-for-attribution meeting explained that China is wary about foreign policy in part because officials are focused instead on maintaining domestic economic growth and keeping a potentially restless public happy.

"I'm not saying that China is selfish," said a senior official, who then conceded that Beijing does indeed think first about its internal problems. In the case of North Korea, China fears that pressuring Pyongyang would send desperate refugees across the border.

The conversation produced a few signs of movement. One professor at the party school began by dismissing U.S. pleas for adjustment of China's currency. But after more discussion, the professor said that perhaps China could reduce its trade surplus by raising salary levels so workers could buy more imports from the United States. He even proposed a "coordination mechanism" to foster balanced trade.

What frustrates U.S. officials is that China sometimes seems more comfortable accommodating a strong United States, as it did in past decades, than partnering with an America that's less dominant. One American delegate chided the Chinese for treating the Obama administration's early concessions as signs of weakness, and for making a hawkish new claim that the South China Sea was a "core interest" for China.

Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor with the U.S. group, said Chinese officials here privately tried to ease U.S. concerns by saying that there had been a "misperception" of China's comments about the South China Sea.

"We're in the same boat" was a remark made here by Chinese and Americans alike. That sounds encouraging. But the boat is drifting these days, if not sinking outright, and the two need to start paddling in unison.

I came away from the meeting with the same mixed picture I saw touring China a month ago - that for all the country's prosperity and seeming confidence, its leaders are preoccupied with problems of internal growth and political stability. They see policy debates with the West through this clouded lens.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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