Washington’s in an uproar; Woodward inadvertently passes the torch from the Watergate generation to the Plamegate posse; and bereft at the loss of their exterminator, Delay, the Republicans in Congress are heading every which way but loose. Exciting stuff, but across the Pacific Ocean, there’s some boring stuff which matters a whole lot more in the long run. This weekend, the leaders of the U.S. government and the Chinese government will cross chopsticks at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, and our “esteemed leader” will sit down with their esteemed leader.
It’s safe to say that China’s President Hu Jintao feels he has the upper hand in his meetings with George Bush. After all, while China’s economic growth depends on U.S. consumers buying goods made in China, we depend on China not only to make those inexpensive goods, but to buy U.S. Treasury bonds, which is one reason why inflation has been kept in check. While the United States expends vast amounts of money and energy fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the process strains its relations with various parts of the globe, China plays good cop. The Bush administration fails to corral a nuclear North Korea; China quietly gets the Dadaist regime in Pyongyang to tone down its ambitions to sell its weapons to the highest bidder. The Bush administration plays into the hands of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, neatly managing to resurrect the bad gringo role that had just recently been laid to rest, while China courts countries that the United States neglects, countries with natural resources and pride who not only want to sell their oil, iron ore, nickel, copper, and zinc but want to be told how wonderful they are at the same time. China obliges. China is becoming friends to all (well, maybe not to Japan), while the United States walks into the global sandbox and the rest of the kids drop their shovels and head for the swing set.
Tomorrow, Bush will ask the Chinese to please revalue their currency and please do something about copying all those DVDs and please not jail people who speak out against the state and please not encourage outsourcing. The Chinese will listen, and perhaps obliquely point out that a country with 83,000 people in outsourced prisons around the world probably shouldn’t be calling the kettle black, and that the trade deficit with China has less to do with currency issues than with the insatiable desire of American consumers to buy DVD players for $50 at Wal-mart.
By the way, the Democrats aren’t much better on China, with Senator Schumer proposing a 27% punitive tariff on Chinese goods if they don’t revalue their currency or do something to stop what is happening.
China is the single great economic challenge of our day, and Americans, Democrats and Republicans alike, are largely in denial. American squandered opportunities with the mindless obsession over Lewinsky in the late 1990s, and we may well spend the next two years focused on much more disturbing scandals and abuses of the Bush administration. That will be satisfying, and perhaps deserved, but it won’t do much to address the challenge posed by China, and in 2008, when someone other than Bush will be elected, China will host the Olympics and the world will get a visceral jolt and a reminder of what is going on in Beijing. It isn’t too late to redirect the American economy in a more competitive direction, but by then, it just might be.