China On Washington's Mind

U.S. President Barack Obama and China's President Xi Jinping arrive for a bilateral meeting ahead of the G20 Summit, at West
U.S. President Barack Obama and China's President Xi Jinping arrive for a bilateral meeting ahead of the G20 Summit, at West Lake State Guest Housee in Hangzhou, China September 3, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

China is an ever-present element in strategic discourse, yet is rarely treated with the sobriety that it deserves and requires. It is as if China's monumental importance for the shape of global affairs in the 21st century, with obviously profound implications for the United States, has frozen foreign policy minds rather than stimulated them.

While there are a handful of scholarly works that make a serious attempt to think through the unprecedented ways in which China will impact our interdependent but still competitive world, public discourse is characterized by simplifications that either reproduce an irrelevant past and/or harp on strictly American responses to this perceived threat to our supremacy. The sheer complexity of an intellectual and diplomatic challenge is overwhelming the very modest capabilities of our leaders who already struggle with limited success to cope with far more prosaic problems.

Without presuming to any expertise on China, or presuming to know what strategic master strokes are in order, one still can offer a few touchstones for appraising approaches that are potentially fruitful and those to be avoided. In the latter category, the cardinal sin is disparagement of China and the implications of its rise. This is a common avoidance device that has taken hold in many political, media and think tank circles. It is understandable in psychological terms. Avoidance is utterly irresponsible in policy terms, however.

The recent slowdown in China's astronomical rate of economic growth has encouraged this response pattern. Oddly, it co-exists with exclamations of anxiety about Beijing's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea and that new found practice of engaging in verbal duels with Washington about the management of global affairs. A strained and stilted reconciliation takes the form of condescending instruction to the effect that China should recognize two paramount realities: it is not as strong as it believes it is; it will suffer deleterious consequences unless it alters course to align with the prevailing perspectives of the United States and its like-minded partners.

The most egregious manifestations of this attitude are found in the so-called "serious" press and journals -- as well as many publications of prestigious foundations and institutes. The New York Times exemplifies this conduct to the point of caricature. Readers are treated to a steady diet of stories that dwell on China's problems, however trivial the subject. Hence, we are offered easily digestible morsels that are the news equivalent of junk food.

From 3-5 times a week, we learn of the dire fate of noodle vendors in the old alleys of Beijing or how the demand for luxury goods appears to have expanded less robustly than it did a few years back. Or how China's impressive network of high-speed rail lines is straining public finances -- this from a country whose capital city cannot keep its creaky subway running and abandons its decades-old struggle to extend it to Dulles airport in a Virginia shopping mall. Probing analysis of the country's growing technological prowess or its gobbling up of natural resources on five continents or its contesting American financial dominance are relegated to the occasional technical piece in the Business Section.

Analysis of political institutions is similarly skewed toward the pessimistic and the superficial. This is silly. Such juvenile behavior evokes images of a concerned parent sitting down a wayward middle school child in the dinette for a heart-to-heart talk on how young adults are expected to act maturely in seeing the world as it is rather than as a self-indulgent fantasy.

Another common attitude to be avoided is the characterization of China as an implacable rival whose threat to American dominance must be repulsed on every front. This is a classic 18th - 19th century mentality tinged with lingering Cold War imagery. Putin's Russia, of course, has been cast in this very mold -- to an absurd degree that borders on the cartoonish. There is a considerable danger that similar gross transference could occur in regard to China.
As to what might be a more constructive approach, some things are obvious. They are implied in the paragraphs above.

First, simple-minded analogies to past great power conflicts are a lure to be rejected. In today's unique circumstances, we must think anew -- about China, about ourselves, about managing a world wherein cooperation and competition intersect. Frankly, we currently show no aptitude for doing that.

Second, we should recognize that the era of American unilateralism is over. The moment of unchallenged American supremacy, the hyper-power era that followed the end of the Cold War, is past. Others no longer will accept Washington's dictation. Certainly, that is true of China. President XI shoved that unwelcome reality under Uncle Sam's nose at the Hangzhou G-20 Summit earlier this month. We have yet to see signs that the Obama people took notice, much less drew lessons from that display. We should bear in mind that this is the same foreign policy Establishment that to its discredit has the historic accomplishment of unmitigated and humiliating failures in the Middle East over the past 15 years -- and a learning curve that is perfectly flat.

The imperative is talk -- real, sustained exchanges. Dialogue would be the appropriate term if the word hadn't been debased by promiscuous misuse. Traditional diplomacy entails the communication patterns associated with bargaining. At times, there also is signaling via non-verbal means, e.g. the movement of military assets, unilateral measures of one kind of another. By contrast, present and future circumstances call for strategic discussions. The collective challenge is to foster shared conceptions of the evolving world system. Those conceptions will be like nothing that has existed previously. This is an undertaking that will strain the minds of leaders and the resilience of their domestic political systems. That is, if the inescapable need to launch the process is recognized. That has yet to occur.

The United States' foreign policy Establishment clearly is unprepared for such an enterprise -- psychologically, intellectually and politically. Recent administrations have shown themselves averse even to talking with other governments unless they make prior accession to American terms of reference. The act of engaging in serious discourse is felt to be somehow alien. Making an appointment with the President is akin to arranging a Papal audience. The White House views it as privilege to be accorded or denied in accordance with presidential predilection. Of course, Secretary of State John Kerry never stops talking. However, all of his encounters with counterparts are part of a bargaining process that almost never touches on strategic issues -- much less broad visions of how world affairs should be conducted.

So, Washington will not talk to Iran because it has been declared beyond the pale. In stark It will not talk to Vladimir Putin. The refusal to engage Putin in a wide-ranging exchange is disheartening and instructive. The Russian leader is rational person, a highly intelligent person, and one who has elaborated at length and in remarkably coherent form his conception of what an international system for the 21st century should look like. He has detailed rules-of-the-road, mechanism and methods. Yet, Obama treats Putin as a pariah. The president routinely insults him in public -- last week equating him with Saddam Hussein. His secretary of defense, Ashton Carter, fulminates at every opportunity about the Russian "threat" and the Putin menace -- Putin being depicted as a cross between Ivan the Terrible and Josef Stalin. Hillary Clinton calls him another Hitler.

The sensible approach might be for a president to sit down alone with Putin and introduce an open-ended session by putting to him the question: "What do you want, Vladimir?" Putin would be delighted to expound an articulate response. One could hope that Obama himself would go beyond the exclamation: "Let me tell you something. The United States of America is Number One. Period. Not even close!"

President Xi of China has escaped vilification -- so far. But Washington has made no greater effort to engage him in the sort of discourse about the future shape of Sino-American relations and the world system for which they are destined to be primary joint custodians. Xi is more elusive than Putin. He is far less forthright, more guarded and embodies a political culture very different from that of the United States or Europe. Still, he is no dogmatic ideologue or power-mad imperialist. Cultural differences too easily can become an excuse for avoiding the study, the pondering and the exercise in strategic imagination that is called for.