How do you handle a surging China? “Respectfully and candidly,” says Ken Lieberthal, ex-Clinton National Security Council member and China expert at the Brookings Institute.
The Chinese are extremely sensitive to body language about how you perceive them, says Lieberthal, on a visit to India. “If they believe you really respect them, they will take anything you say seriously. If they believe otherwise, they won’t believe a thing you say.”
The global economic crisis has catapulted China to the top rank. “They are finding themselves central to global discussions on issues like the G-20 and climate change much sooner than anticipated,” says Lieberthal. While Beijing has recognized the world has changed, but it’s still working out its approach to many issues.
While many countries are worried that this new Chinese influence has translated into greater assertiveness, Lieberthal says it’s still more style than substance.
“We still have to see whether this translates into actual policies.” So China has been rhetorically sharper about US arms sales to Taiwan, but its threat to impose sanctions on US companies is not new – “they’ve just never said it publicly before.”
Which is why the respect equation is so important. “If the Chinese respect you, they are prepared to learn from you,” he says. Beijing likes frank and open discussion. “They like it if you say this is our perspective, this is our experience. It’s different from yours so let’s discuss it.”
Who do the Chinese look up to? “They respect people who get a lot done,” says Lieberthal. They like Lee Kuan Yew. They even liked George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. China remains uncertain about Barack Obama. “The accept he’s smart, articulate and has good ideas. But they ask: can he close a deal?”