The mid-August gathering called Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington of Chinese and American officials was a quintessential example of both tendencies.
It may have served the purposes of Washington’s ailing tourist industry for some 150 Chinese visitors to be wined and dined in an effort to match the always overwhelming hospitality the Chinese seem to carry in their genes for visitors to Beijing. It could even be that some effective personal relationships were initiated between American and Chinese officials that would have enduring effect on the two powers’ future negotiations. And, of course, it follows in the line of the chief mantra of this Administrations foreign policy, that conversations with opponents and potential enemies will solve all problems.
But it is not the way that business is effectively conducted between two of the world’s major powers. No matter the cordiality of the mob scene, effective negotiations were not likely to have taken place – even though as Secretaries State and Treasury Hillary Clinton and Timothy Geithner, in their obligatory op-ed, trumpeted the participation of Vice Premier Wang Qishan and State Councilor Dai Bingguo and “ [M]any of our cabinet colleagues”.
Even the well oiled Obama claque, led by trade lobbyists, could report a memorandum of understanding on attacking the problems of “global warming” and pollution as the only tangible product of the conclave. How many international documents the Chinese Communist regime has signed only to “more honor'd in the breach than in the observance”. Ironically, just as that document was signed, news of another horrendous episode of massive industrial poisoning squeezed through the Chinese censorship indicating once more Beijing’s attempt to repress if not ignore their increasing manmade environmental problem.
It was not as though there are not a host of issues in their specificity waiting to be addressed by the U.S. and the Obama Administration in its relations with China. That the issues are complex and difficult of solution is the understatement of the year. But they are made vastly more difficult of resolution because, whether with all the good will in the world by its proponents, effective negotiating with the Chinese regime is blocked by its lack of transparency. However flattering Clinton’s “schoolgirl” appearance in the comments of her Chinese interlocutor and the largely manufactured bonhomie of the gathering, the pretense might even have been incipiently dangerous. For while The Forbidden City Chinese Communist Party headquarters may now be digitalized, how the government really makes decisions and tries to implement them is as much a mystery and an object of gossip as it was in the Ch’ing Dynasty.
Given that the history of U.S.-China relations have always been rocky however intimate they have been since the founding of the American republic, it is self evident that in a period when Beijing’s economic and political clout are increasingly important that they require a high priority for attention – to details. Equally obvious is that given their complexity, they will have to be solved on a largely piecemeal basis – as are almost all political and human problems if and when it is accomplished without violence and tragedy.
Those considerations can, perhaps, be broken down into categories, if inevitably overlapping:
Economic: China and the U.S. have emerged, rather suddenly, from two decades of rapid growth and collaboration from an America on a consumption binge and a China willing to fill that need with cheap exports based on its almost inexhaustible labor supply and willingness to accept massive transfers of capital and technology. Now, whatever else the Obama Administration’s domestic recovery strategy and success would eventually turn out to be, U.S. markets [as well as the EU’s] will tighten. Beijing must find a way to turn back to promotion of its mammoth and fundamental but largely neglected economic and social domestic issues, abandoned in the export-led whirlwind of unbalanced and fragile, if high, overall growth rates. The debris of the past leaves China with an enormous U.S. debt, likely to continue to grow in the short term, which it must use with caution as a financial resource, and the U.S. with a gutted industrial structure it must at least partially rebuild. Unhappily, there is little assurance that a one-party, increasingly corrupt -- in the broadest sense of the word -- Chinese elite, with no basic ideology except rapid growth as a means for hanging on to power, is even exploring that issue in a meaningful way. It may, therefore, be incumbent on an Obama Administration to formulate an at least partially altruistic program meeting China’s needs [much as Washington did with hefty and enthusiastic European contributions after World War II].
Political: “A peaceful rising China” [incidentally, a bumpersticker official Beijing has eschewed since its initial formulation] has a role to play in world affairs, obviously. First and foremost, it must do so in its own backyard where it has traditionally been so seminal: but there is as yet not real evidence that China will take the bit in its teeth and use its economic power to restrain an increasingly armed and unstable North Korea. For the moment, at least, relations with Taiwan’s more accommodating Nationalist government are better – but missiles are still at the ready and no rejection of military force by Beijing for a reunification of the two Chinas has been forthcoming. The bloody shirt is being waved less frequently at the Japanese who have repeatedly accepted guilt for the aggression preceding and during World War II, but it remains a counterproductive part of Beijing’s rhetorical reservoir in dealings with its most important neighbor [feeding a potential nascent nationalism there]. Elsewhere in the world, Beijing has chosen not only to align itself on a no-questions-asked with some of the world’s most obstreperous regimes, but it has fueled disputes with arms sales and its obstruction as one of the veto-holders in the Big Four in the UN Security Council. The trail of Chinese courtship of such regimes leads from Sudan to Iran to Burma to North Korea.
Military: Communist China continues not only to build a formidable military machine in the face of no apparent threat from any of its neighbors, but it does so in as much secrecy and obfuscation as any major power can command in this age of increasing digital prying and revelation. Whatever the validity of the concept of “a self fulfilling prophecy” – that is, of Washington encouraging militarist adventurism in China by any attempt to ward off a potential threat – the U.S. and its allies, Japan and South Korea, cannot ignore the growing possibility of an aggressive Chinese military. That the Obama Administration has chosen, unlike the Reagan economic recovery program which followed the last severe business cycle, to a relative cut back on military expenditures while engaged in two wars, is a signal the Chinese might take awry. That is dangerous.
Military preparedness – including the integration of Japanese, and perhaps South Korean – weaponry in a purely defensive anti-missiles defense at as rapid a pace as possible appears to be only common sense. The contradictions in the Obama Administration-Congressional strategy in this regard [using the President’s full court press of a threat of his first veto] are apparent in the cancellation of the F22 fighter program [however controversial] to apparently be replaced by the enormous pork barrel additions to the annual military appropriations bill now going forward.
It is a bromide, but it is valid: given the repeated lapses when America [and other democratic powers] let down their guard in the face of an under calculated risk are too numerous to recount here, but an aggressive China could well be another example in the future if current thinking in Washington [and at Pearl Harbor] are not reexamined.
The Clinton-Geithner op-ed, however far down in the bowels of the bureaucracy the ghost writers who created it, does note one important point: “…And while we are working to make China an important partner, we will continue to work closely with our long-standing allies and friends in Asia and around the world and rely on the appropriate international groups and organizations….” One could well argue, that particularly in its waning days, the Bush Administration left much to be desired on this point – not in Europe as its critics have continually howled – but in Asia.
Rather than splashy dinner parties in Washington, the talents of the huge American diplomatic establishment which Clinton often seems to be only marginally out in front of, it is the nitty-gritty of these myriad problems that ought to be addressed.