Secretary of State Hillary Clinton steps up and unlocks the mystery of negotiating with the Chinese – they only compromise with enemies who scare them. Old hands know that the “middle” in Middle Kingdom refers to China’s place of honor just below Heaven but still far above the barbarian horde. That’s why traditional wisdom on negotiating with a Chinese counter-party by giving face and preserving harmony is a loser strategy – you end up bargaining for the best terms of your own submission.
Business leaders can learn a great deal from two approaches to Chinese negotiation that the US has tried out in the last 18 months. The Obama administration started with the same game-plan that many ambitious CEOs attempt when they are still China novices. They gave face, preserved harmony and built close personal relationships by offering concessions. Then they sat back, waiting for the Chinese side to reciprocate. It’s been a long, long wait. Just ask Tim Geithner – he traded his manhood away to Hu Jintao for a 0.7% appreciation in the RMB-USD exchange rate and more trash-talk about the state of the US economy.
Hillary knows better. Rather than pick one humble platitude from Column A and a concession of core values from Column B, she goes off the menu and invents her own geopolitical crisis for Beijing to stir fry. In an awesome display of statesmanship, Clinton reordered the geopolitics of Southeast Asia. China had successfully divided and conquered its small and weaker neighbors like Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines in a series of absurdly lopsided diplomatic slapfests over claims to territory in the South China Sea. One of Beijing’s main deal-points in each negotiation was that there would be no collective bargaining or regional discussions. Beijing had considered it a done deal – the South China Sea was now and forevermore to be stamped Property of PRC.
In a speech during her recent trip to Vietnam Clinton roiled the waters:
“The United States, like every nation, has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea. We share these interests not only with ASEAN members or ASEAN Regional Forum participants, but with other maritime nations and the broader international community.
The United States supports a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion. We oppose the use or threat of force by any claimant. While the United States does not take sides on the competing territorial disputes over land features in the South China Sea, we believe claimants should pursue their territorial claims and the company and rights to maritime space in accordance with the UN convention on the law of the sea. Consistent with customary international law, legitimate claims to maritime space in the South China Sea should be derived solely from legitimate claims to land features.”
In one brilliant stroke, Hillary Clinton reclaimed the truest of all American interests – we are standing up to a bully on behalf of a bunch of regular guys. It probably won’t last, and I’m sure that Congress or the Obama people will find a way of screwing up – but for this brief shining moment America is handling itself with intelligence and dignity in Asia.