China and the U.S.: Too Big to Fail

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Flagging old issues
The U.S.-China dispute is familiar

Beijing has fervently denounced U.S. President Barack Obama's plan to sell more arms to Taiwan, and loudly demanded that he break his coming date with the Dalai Lama. Is this proof that China-U.S. relations have entered a radically new and deeply worrisome phase?

It's tempting to see it that way. There has been much talk of China ruling the world and the clash of civilizations this would prompt. Much has been made of the notion that Chinese leaders have been showing an unexpected cockiness vis-à-vis the U.S. of late, tightly controlling what Obama did when in China, refusing to follow American leads in Copenhagen and then lambasting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for criticizing Beijing in a Jan. 21 speech on Internet freedom. But it's a temptation worth resisting.

China's long, slow return to great-power status is of historic importance and something that will lead to recalibrations of many diplomatic relationships, including that between Washington and Beijing. But as foolish as it would be to ignore this, it's equally foolish to see too much novelty in headline-grabbing stories that fit neatly within established patterns. Chinese officials have expressed outrage before about meetings between foreign leaders and the Dalai Lama. And the Taiwan arms tale follows an even more familiar script. There's nothing new about a U.S. Administration announcing, as Obama's just did, that it's going to sell military hardware to Taiwan. Nor is there anything new about Beijing treating this announcement as proof that the U.S. lacks respect for Chinese sovereignty and for the principles of the "one China" policy that, since the 1970s, has provided the groundwork for relations between the two.

Both sides need to guard against overstating the extent to which the landscape of the international order has changed and against treating China's rise as a more exotic development than it actually is. Keeping these four things in mind should help:

• Just as all politics is local (to a degree), all diplomacy is domestic (to a large extent). China's dramatic growth may have increased its ability to be less deferential toward the U.S. But when officials loudly proclaim that foreign leaders should steer clear of the Dalai Lama, lash out against Clinton's "information imperialism" or stoke popular indignation about Taiwan, their motivation is largely a desire to play the nationalism card as effectively as possible at home, and it is as much a sign of insecurity as it is one of bravado. They see a value in deflecting criticism of the government over issues like corruption, as well as distracting the population from worrying about whether the economic good times will last long enough for those who have so far been left behind to get a chance to enjoy them. Similarly, when American politicians change their rhetoric about or policies toward China, we should remember that this is often done with an eye on how this will play in Peoria.

• A series of similar actions doesn't necessarily represent a coherent policy. Several instances of the Chinese government acting "tougher" could just be discrete events. Rather than read too much into the intensity of recent rhetoric about Clinton's speech and the arms deal, we should watch to see whether, in the coming weeks, China goes along with or tries to block American efforts to put pressure on Iran.

• Whenever we think about how China's rise is sending shock waves through the international order, we should remember that this has happened before. From the 1890s to the 1910s, a continent-sized country was ascending. It claimed to hate imperialism yet wasn't above extending its control over territory. It had a tendency to go it alone, and made other powers nervous. That country was the U.S.

• Beijing's determination to keep its growth rate high and its military up to date limits its ability to alienate other world powers. A boycott, say, of U.S. weapons suppliers over Taiwan (as Beijing has threatened) would simply mean China buying more from European competitors. As satisfying to Chinese jingoists as talk of future military action against Taiwan may be, the flow of Taiwan investment into China is crucial to the mainland's economic health. As, of course, is trade between China and the U.S., which also have a body of water between them and economies growing ever closer.

While Washington and Beijing seem very much at odds just now, we shouldn't let their current state blind us to how intertwined they have become, nor to parallels between America's rise at the start of the last century and China's at the start of this one. Whether they like it or realize it, their relationship is truly one thing too big to fail.

Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, to be published in April by Oxford University Press