Chinese President Hu Jintao's recent trip to Washington seemed to go smoothly enough. There were few awkward moments of the sort that Hu confronted on his last visit to the United States or that President Barack Obama ran into on his first trip to China in 2009. But the cables recently released by WikiLeaks open a larger window into the underlying, troubled relationship between Washington and Beijing. Reading the cables, it's worth asking whether any summit could ease the mistrust between the two countries.
When Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger carried out their historic opening to China, the diplomacy was so closely held that it took more than a quarter-century for historians to learn the essential details of what had happened. Kissinger had written in his memoir, for example, that during his initial meeting with Zhou Enlai in Beijing in 1971, the issue of Taiwan was "mentioned only briefly." When the actual notes of their conversation were released 30 years later, it turned out that Taiwan was discussed at considerable length; it was, along with Vietnam, one of the two main subjects of discussion.
Now, with the release of the WikiLeaks documents, there is no such time delay. Readers can gain direct access to some of the private conversations in recent years between U.S. and Chinese officials. And what the documents reveal, almost in real time, is a relationship marked by mistrust, gamesmanship, and occasional, highly provisional cooperation. We of course can't know what the United States and China will look like a few decades from now. But future historians will probably see in these WikiLeaks cables the concrete evidence of a period of profound change in the relationship between the two countries. In the cables, one finds China often testing the implications of its growing economic strength, and the United States struggling to cope with an increasingly assertive China.
There are some instances of hidden cooperation that come to light in the cables. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, at a working lunch with Dan Piccuta, then the charge d'affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, a senior Chinese official referred to collaboration on international economic issues by what he called the "troika" of China, the United States, and Britain.
The Chinese official "felt that the U.S.-U.K.-China 'troika' had been effective," reported Piccuta. "Beijing could persuade the developing countries, Washington could influence Japan and South Korea, and London could bring along the Europeans."
But Americans were sometimes privately warned to be skeptical about the Chinese regime's public versions of reality. One embassy cable describes how one of China's future leaders told the American ambassador not to trust some of the country's most important economic statistics.
"GDP figures are 'man-made' and therefore unreliable," Li Keqiang, then a provincial Communist Party secretary, now in line to become China's next premier, told then-U.S. Ambassador Clark Randt over dinner four years ago. Li said he relied on a few economic indicators that are less easy to manipulate, such as electricity consumption and the volume of rail cargo. "All other figures, especially GDP statistics, are 'for reference only,' [Li] said smiling," according to Randt's cable.
While this is impressive candor, for the most part the leaked cables only point out the gulf between public face and private reality. While Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said in public in early 2009 that China was concerned about the security of its holdings in U.S. Treasury bonds, a cable shows that the U.S. government nervously explored what Wen had meant and whether China might be planning to dump its Treasuries. In another cable about trade and economic disputes, the embassy in Beijing reported that "USG [U.S. government] complaints -- absent a credible threat of retaliatory action or other leverage -- are falling on increasingly deaf Chinese ears."