11.16.09

China's Upper Hand

Obama faces a new reality as he tries to reengage Beijing: from global warming to currency, Peter Beinart says the days when the U.S. can make demands of China are over. Plus, view our gallery.

To hear the Obama administration tell it, the problem with American foreign policy towards China is that we haven’t been paying enough attention. In the weeks and months leading up to the President’s arrival in Beijing, a bevy of administration officials implied that the Bush administration had become so preoccupied with the Middle East that it gave China free reign to expand its influence in Asia. Now, by sending Obama to the continent in his first year—after sending Hillary Clinton there on her first foreign trip—Team Obama is trying to signal that America is back in the game.

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But here’s the irony: the Bush administration’s policy towards China wasn’t that bad—precisely because they didn’t pay that much attention. Before September 11, 2001, the Weekly Standard crowd had been all set to make the Middle Kingdom the next evil empire. When a U.S. spy plane went down over Chinese soil during Bush’s first months in office, Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan—with apparent support from Dick Cheney—began talking darkly about a new cold war. President Bush even ditched America’s long-standing policy of not explicitly pledging to defend Taiwan, a policy designed to prevent Taipei from declaring independence and thus sparking World War III. Before 9/11, the Bush hawks—and large chunks of the American right—were looking for an enemy. Had Mohammed Atta and company not intervened, Beijing might well have been it.

PEN ALERT: Free Liu XiaoboSo when Obama administration officials say America needs to start paying more attention to China, they’re not talking about the American right. It’s only because the right’s attentions were elsewhere, in fact, that U.S.-Chinese relations—the relations upon which global security and prosperity depend—have remained so calm. And they’re not really talking about the American left either. Liberals don’t want to confront Beijing militarily, but many do want to confront it economically. Back during the Clinton years, the activist left mostly opposed “most favored nation” trading status for Beijing and demanded restrictions on Chinese goods until its government improved workers’ rights and environmental protection. Today, the left is also unhappy about China’s devalued currency, which makes its exports artificially cheap. The only thing keeping liberals from declaring trade war on China now is that China isn’t high on their priority list: health care, global warming, card-check, Afghanistan and various other issues all come first.

Herein lies Team Obama’s problem: They want to pay more attention to China. But the result of all their attention is likely to be arrangements that codify China’s newfound economic and political power. From global warming to currency levels to human rights, the days when the U.S. could make demands of Beijing are over—we can bargain all we want, but at the end of the day, we know and they know that they are our bank. When Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg recently said that the catchphrase of U.S.-Chinese relations should be “strategic reassurance,” hawks indignantly asked what we had to reassure them about. Steinberg was too polite to say, but the answer is pretty obvious: we need to reassure them that America is a still a good investment. When China stops believing that, it’s going to be a very sad day in Mudville.

So it’s all well and good for the Obama administration to pay more attention to China. But the more attention the activist left and right pays, the harder it will be for Team Obama to come to terms with the new limits of American power. Try convincing the tea-bag crowd that the U.S. should cut its greenhouse gasses more than China does. Or try convincing the AFL-CIO that we can’t really retaliate against Chinese protectionism with protectionism of our own. Precisely because Americans haven’t been paying much attention to China, they haven’t fully acknowledged the shift in the balance of power between Washington and Beijing. The more the Obama administration calls attention to that shift, the more abuse it is likely to take.

As a government, the Obama administration seems ready for a relationship of equals with China. But as a people, Americans have barely begun to come to terms with what that means. I’m all for James Steinberg paying more attention to China. But what happens when Glenn Beck starts paying attention, too?

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is a professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.