An Undeserved Arrogance -- Washington and a China Redux

There is nothing so dismal as a superpower on the wane. The geopolitical reality that emerged in the wake of World War II left London and Paris adrift for years. The Brits could not fathom the demise of an empire upon which the sun never set. The French clung to visions of grandeur even as Algiers and Vietnam burned. And now Washington seems beset with similar delusions. Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, American statesmen have become accustomed to serving as body of unassailable international potentates. When diplomacy failed, U.S. policy makers could always resort to an employment of arms. Beijing is now making it clear this unilateral pursuit of our national interests has come to an end. I just wonder how long it will take for Washington to process the message.

We certainly can't blame Beijing for Washington's confusion. The Chinese have been signaling concern with American economic, military, and political decisions for well over a year. Think back to March 2009. Justifiably bewildered by Washington's profligate spending habits, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao publicly declared China is "worried" about its U.S. Treasury holdings and wants assurances Beijing's investments are safe. As Wen put it, "We have lent a huge amount of money to the United States. I request the U.S. to maintain its good credit, to honor its promises and to guarantee the safety of China's assets." Washington wasn't listening--instead we sent Tim Geithner on a goodwill tour.

This bit of Treasury-tourism in June 2009 was certainly less than successful. When asked about the long-term security of Beijing's investment in U.S. Treasury notes following a speech to Chinese college students, Geithner's response -- the "assets are very safe" -- drew laughter from the audience. Vice Premier Wang Qishan went so far as to bluntly inform our Treasury Secretary that "What is important to me is the issue of our investments in U.S. debt." Given the latest budget proposal from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue--a projected deficit approaching $1.3 trillion for the coming year--Tim Geithner apparently forgot to tell the President about these incidents.

And then there were the expressions of concern about our military decisions--specifically the proposed arms sale to Taiwan. Despite a year and half of historic progress in cross-Strait relations, and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou's clear intent to continue pursuit of his reconciliation policies (how else does one explain abandonment of Taipei's 16-year old bid to reenter the United Nations?), Washington decides to proceed with a $6.4 billion arms sale to the "renegade province." Not only that, but then some members of the Beltway foreign policy cabal express shock and dismay at Beijing's response to same. Why? As best I can tell we knew how the Chinese were going to react. Hu Jintao and company were going to be pissed. What we seemingly forget to end-game was the possibility Beijing might also chose to target the commercial participants in this foolishness.

If I was sitting in Beijing you can bet I would advise singling out Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Sikorsky. Given the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, I would be announcing an intention to boycott any American corporation that served to benefit from a political decision inimical to Chinese national interests. Sure, one can go through the usual futile gestures of lecturing diplomats and canceling military-to-military exchanges--but if you really want to send a message to an American politician go after the corporate entities that can now directly contribute to efforts that might result in his or her loss in a forthcoming election. That's exactly what Beijing has done. Perhaps we should have been listening when Chinese leaders warned there would be consequences for proceeding with this decision.

So now we have the Chinese peeved on the economic and military fronts. What's next? Well, why not poke sharpened bamboo in the Panda's political cage? So let's announce an intention to meet with the Dalai Lama and continue to lecture Beijing on the need to revalue its currency. Let's package the Dalai Lama decision as a sop to human rights activists and the currency argument as a push to address unemployment in the United States. Because, lord knows, we've done a stellar job in shutting down Guantanamo and bolstering the strength of the U.S. dollar. (The yuan is pegged to the dollar--so Washington's fiscal irresponsibility directly benefits the Chinese, but that's a discussion for another day.) Of course the Chinese are peeved--we would be if they engaged in similar tactics.

Which brings me back to Washington's inability to recognize the consequences of being a superpower in decline. A case in point, the Washington Post's response to Beijing's demonstration of national fortitude. In a 4 February 2010 editorial titled "Rising China?" the Post intones "Bursting with hubris about its emergence as a global power, [Beijing] is testing to see how far a new and inexperienced U.S. president can be pushed." This none-too-subtle allusion to the 1961 Vienna summit between John Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev is dramatically off the mark. Obama is not governing Camelot and Beijing is not the battle-tested Khrushchev. The players in this new game of international chess are not so unevenly matched. But, that's exactly my point.

The Beltway participants in this foreign policy debacle have yet to realize they no longer operate from the economic or political high ground. Oh, I'm certain we could defeat the Chinese in an offshore naval engagement--but the military element of this balance of power is an increasingly moot point. Too bad the Post--like many in Washington--have failed to recognize this is the now the case. Quite frankly, Mr Obama, nor anyone else in Washington, is in position to follow the Post's advice and "prick the bubble of inflated ambition that has been growing in Beijing." Beijing's ambition is not "inflated"--it has been earned, as China's leadership is quite aware.

What do the Chinese want? First, the Chinese Communist Party wants to be recognized as a responsible member of the international community--both at home and abroad. Second, China is positioning herself to equip, train, and maintain a modern military required by a Westphalian world--but which is less threatening to the neighbors. Finally, China is seeking to "sell" her governance model--from economic development to serving a domestic constituency--as a direct competitor to the version of liberal democracy Washington has long sought to peddle across the planet. This, as I have noted elsewhere, is no mean agenda, and has been the cause of alarm and planning in Washington. Such reactions are wise--it is better to wander into the wilderness prepared--but, as we shall see, largely unnecessary. Beijing's plans for the future should not be confused with Moscow's apparent bid to recapture the "glory" that was the former Soviet Union. Beijing is not beset with delusions of imperial grandeur. Rather, China is governed by pragmatists who seek to re-establish a sphere of influence conducive to continued economic development.

This objective is neither so dangerous--nor benign--as some might suggest. On her way to achieving these goals Beijing will have to act as Washington's "peer competitor." That means we can expect China to seek means of securing her energy supplies--and to participate in international peacekeeping operations. We can expect China to deploy military forces abroad--and to back away from her confrontation from Taiwan. We can expect Beijing to challenge our leadership in the United Nations--and to facilitate U.S. nuclear non-proliferation efforts around the globe. We can expect Beijing to bridle at efforts to condemn her human rights record at home, while simultaneously advocating Chinese socialism abroad. In short, Washington is now confronted with a contemporary who understands the benefit of maintaining the current international system, but is not enamored of the existing leadership. Hopefully, someone in Washington is ready for this new reality--it would be a shame to fall into the decades of delusional foreign policy that so haunted London and Paris.