Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Obama in China

Watching early reports on President Obama's visit to China this morning, two thoughts:

1) The Chinese are clearly enjoying their ongoing rollout as a premier world power (I don't like "superpower," it's a debased usage like "supermodel"). As in so many other areas, the Chinese understand the role the US plays in this. A visit by the American head of state is still different from a visit by any other leader. Obama is the right kind of American politician to handle that: he knows how to gain by giving, something the previous administration had no instinct for at all.

There is also a palpable sense that both sides realize that if they can somehow develop a working partnership they can be twice as strong as either can alone ("Chimerica"), leavened by underlying doubts on both sides about the ultimate intentions of the other. Economically, for example, although China may have a strategic advantage because of their truly awesome reserve of US dollars, they could only do serious damage to the US by beggaring themselves. Obama's political style is salutary here: he can make it easier to get concessions (floating the yuan, enforcing copyrights, stopping underselling) by helping the Chinese save face (an all-important factor in Chinese diplomacy).

2) The Bush-Cheney administration was committed to maintaining the security status quo along the Pacific Rim: dozens of bases and a nuclear armada right in China's face. This Pax Americana is no longer tenable politically or financially. With the end of the Cold War (a work in progress) the US must find a way to stand down as the global gendarme or go broke. This is easier said than done.

There are three options: a) Try to maintain the status quo. I take that to be a clear non-starter; not even our allies in the region want that. b) Solve all the regional security problems (insure Japanese security, reunify the Korean Peninsula, peacefully settle the issue of Taiwanese status, etc.). That option is a dream, equally obviously. 3) Have the Chinese, the Japanese, and the Russians handle regional security.

Notice that my critique is not primarily of the big bad USA. It is the Asian powers, on my view, including liberal parties in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, who make free use of anti-American rhetoric, but who have thus far been far from willing to put their money where their mouths are. Only China (perhaps with help from Russia) can deal with North Korea. They don't want to because of the expense. They would like to send the bill to the Japanese and the Americans. China's "Middle Kingdom" intransigent style of diplomacy has also achieved exactly nothing towards resolving relations with Taiwan. Thus even Bill Clinton had to continue the saber-rattling policy of sending nuclear-armed carrier groups into the Taiwan Strait when China's hawkish generals would indulge in one of their periodic rounds of threats, and Obama will too. The Chinese need to do better than that if they want the Americans to go home. I hope they do, because most Americans want the Americans to go home too. I certainly do.