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Thursday, September 23, 2010

White House Memo - U.S., Caught Off Guard by New Tensions With China, Cultivates Back-Channel Ties - NYTimes.com

WASHINGTON — Few foreign policy problems took the Obama administration more by surprise this year than the rapid escalation of tensions with China: The countries’ common approach to North Korea disintegrated, Beijing has balked at energy sanctions against Iran, the always-wary conversation between the American and Chinese militaries was cut off.
Nor has there been any real progress on America’s demand that China allow its currency to appreciate. Congress is considering huge, and politically appealing, tariffs on Chinese goods before the November elections, with cautious encouragement from the White House, which thinks it can manage the process to avoid a trade war.
So somewhat belatedly, President Obama decided he needed what every American president since Nixon had had: A direct back channel of communications to the Chinese leadership, a way to head off trouble or create an opening without going through the formal diplomatic exchanges.
“Think Kissinger, Scowcroft, Brzezinski, Berger,” one of Mr. Obama’s senior national security aides said the other day, ticking off the names of national security advisers who cultivated off-line access to the Chinese leadership. “We had not done this, and it was overdue,” the administration official said, although Mr. Obama and Hu Jintao, China’s president, have met a half dozen times since early last year.
Early this month Mr. Obama quietly sent to Beijing Thomas E. Donilon, his deputy national security adviser and by many accounts the White House official with the greatest influence on the day-to-day workings of national security policy, and Lawrence H. Summers, who announced Tuesday that he would leave by the end of the year as the director of the National Economic Council.
The choice of the lead emissary was noted by the Chinese: Mr. Donilon is considered a strong candidate as the future national security adviser, or perhaps White House chief of staff, if rumors are true and both jobs are soon to be vacated.
The concrete results of the meeting were slim: Exchanges between the American and Chinese militaries are about to resume, after Beijing cut them off in a fit of pique about arms sales to Taiwan and Mr. Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama.
But officials familiar with the meetings said they were intended to try to get the two countries focused on some common long-term goals. The Chinese sounded more cooperative themes than in the spring, when two other administration officials were told, as one senior official put it, that “it was the Obama administration that caused this mess, and it’s the Obama administration that has to clean it up.”

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