Chinese President Hu Jintao is due to arrive in Washington on Tuesday evening, to start a three-day official visit to the United States. All reports coming out of Washington, D.C. suggest this visit is amongst the most highly anticipated in years. And no wonder: The United States is committed to two ongoing wars and is still attempting to sustain even a modest economic recovery. China has enjoyed solidly robust economic growth for years and is rapidly expanding its enormous military’s technological capabilities, as well as its geopolitical reach.
In short, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, the United States will be forced to deal with another country as something approaching an equal, while being mindful of the dispiriting possibility that at a similar meeting not too far in the future, it may well be the United States, the leader of the Western Free World, that is the junior partner in the Sino-American relationship. Many words have been written ahead of the summit, and still more will be penned when it’s over. Even so, it is worth briefly reflecting on the current state of the relationship, as well as the worrying evidence that President Hu might be rather more a figurehead than a leader.
By the standards of recent history, the United States and China get along fairly well. There is none of the brinksmanship, with the attendant risk of nuclear war, that was the cornerstone of Soviet-American relations for 40 years. This is not to deny that there are flashpoints in the relationship, merely to point out that areas of disagreement between the two nations do not pose the risk of rapid escalation to mutual genocide. Unlike the Soviets, China does not as yet demonstrate any sign of having global imperial ambitions, and seems content to adapt capitalism to its own needs, rather than battling against it in an inevitably futile struggle.
Indeed, it is China’s willingness to use capitalism, with surprising effectiveness, that leads to many of the regime’s clashes with the United States. Over the last 20 years, China has become the assembly line of the entire world, manufacturing items of every description and exporting them to Western markets for prices that businesses in the importing countries cannot hope to compete with. They have used the influx of cash obtained through these sales to purchase enormous quantities of American debt bonds, creating a closed circuit wherein America gives China the money China uses to buy American debt.
As China’s economic might has grown, however, it has refused to open its markets to Western goods, has kept its currency artificially low (to make Chinese exports even stronger) and has shamelessly appropriated Western patents and other forms of intellectual property for its own domestic use while paying little or no compensation. Even while it has sought to join Western-oriented organizations such as the World Trade Organization and the Group of 20 leading nations, it has refused to play by the same rules that effectively govern trade in North America, Europe and the rest of the developed world.
It’s not hard to see why. For two decades now, the citizens of the West have been partaking in a debt-fueled orgy of spending, and only a country with pockets as deep as China could possibly loan them enough money to keep the party going. Western diplomats might have made noises about China’s unbalanced trading practices, but there was no incentive for them to rock the boat. Now that the financial crisis of 2008 has brought the party to a close, the West is shaking off its fiscal hangover only to notice that not only has China bought up enormous quantities of American debt, it has also turned itself into a manufacturing giant and helped itself to enough Western know-how to be rapidly narrowing the technology gap. One can criticize the Chinese actions while still admiring their cunning. The West lent them the money they needed to compete with us on more equal terms.
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