November 19, 2009
Following is an op-ed I penned in April. I’m posting it here in light of President Barack Obama’s visit to China this week, where he failed to press Beijing where it counts. The piece is arguably more relevant today than it was in April. I will comment on Obama’s visit more specifically in a later entry.
Economic liberalization. Human rights. Currency valuation. Tibet. Piracy. China draws a clear line in the sand. Washington shows that its line is movable. Hardly a recipe for long-term American success.
America, while seeking to engage with China based on mutual interest and mutual respect, must regain the strength of its convictions, especially when China seeks to undermine U.S. power and international norms.
Some say taking a tougher line with Beijing will encourage China to grow strong outside the existing world order. This misses the fact that it is in China’s long-term interest not to alienate itself from the global community, and that pandering to Chinese “sensitivities” rewards Beijing for its recalcitrance. It also gives China a crucial psychological edge: leaving Beijing with the sense that what it wills, it will get, and Washington (not to mention key allies) with the false impression that China can’t be controlled, that the only way to end stalemates with China is to back down.
It’s time this fatalistic approach is replaced with a sustained action-oriented ethic that short of seeking confrontation is not afraid of it either. The bilateral relationship can’t be fruitful for Washington otherwise.
At a minimum the U.S. should press China harder at the policy level over key breaches of international norms.
It would behoove Washington here to apply pressure in areas where there is strong global consensus, such as Darfur, North Korea, Burma and Iran. Where China clashes with the West but cedes the moral high ground in the eyes of global opinion, it will isolate itself and risk doing damage to its long-term credibility.
Washington should also select areas where China can’t convincingly use delay tactics to postpone results. Where Washington can fairly expect real-time results, it will be more justified in seeking to penalize China for its shortcomings and should find it easier to garner multilateral support for the cause. Copyright infringement would fit the bill. China says it’s at a loss to manage the problem. But if it can carefully monitor its estimated 300 million internet users, or rid Beijing streets of “undesirable” elements in the run up to the Olympics, then it is not unreasonable to insist on faster results on piracy.
Meanwhile, Washington must abandon the assumption that it needs China to tackle the world’s most pressing problems, from the global economic crisis to nuclear proliferation. It would help to have Beijing on board. But just as America did not need the Soviet Union’s cooperation but formed other alliances to defeat communism, it does not need China’s assistance to effectively lead in the 21st century. Failure to make the distinction restricts Washington at the decision-making level and will erode American power and effectiveness.
Notwithstanding what the Bush years revealed about the limits of U.S. power, Washington maintains myriad tools at its disposal to affect positive change. Under President Barack Obama, old and new alliances are ready to be nurtured, while America’s political, economic and cultural appeal, i.e. soft power, outranks China’s, even in China’s traditional sphere of influence of Asia, according to a study by the Chicago Council. Indeed much of the world remains distrustful of Beijing’s intentions and takes little comfort in its rapid military buildup. China will feed those suspicions should it continue to shield pariah states and impede progress in areas like human rights, global security and the environment.
China has another reason to cooperate with Washington and that is economic dependence. Not to advocate isolationism but a trade war would hurt China’s low-tech, manufacturing-based economy more than it would America’s—a point all but recognized by Beijing when at the recent G20 London summit it was the loudest opponent of protectionism.
In sum, the U.S. is playing with a better hand than it supposes and must make fuller use of it. In keeping with its multilateral ideals, America should make room for China at the table of nations, while making it clear that Beijing will not be rewarded for trying to elbow its way through the crowded room to the head of the table.