The handshake between President Richard Nixon and Chairman Mao Zedong that began the integration of the People’s Republic of China into the international community has just reached its apotheosis. Over the past two weeks, a series of muted codewords and subtle gestures may not have exhibited the drama of the Nixon-Mao breakthrough yet it nevertheless represents a leap upward for Beijing into global prominence.
The China visit of Vice President Joe Biden and arrival of U.S. Ammbassador Gary Locke signified the recognition of China as something more than the world’s factory or a rising power. Beijing is now one of the senior partners in the postwar international system of law, trade and finance created under the leadership of the United States.
The foreign policy Uturn was signaled with a nod from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, long a hawk on human rights and security issues, who quietly backed another notch up in the normalization process formulated by President Jimmy Carter. Despite the unsportsmanlike collapse of basketball diplomacy (in contrast with its friendly ping-pong precedent), Biden and Locke showed America’s less-officious and casual face along with a respectful attitude toward China.
Gone are the snarly belligerence on Taiwan, the moralistic crusade for Shangri-La, and bible-thumping by dubious human-rights missionaries. The crazed adventurism of the Jasmine revolutionaries has withered in the sober air of realism. Whatever the cost and pullbacks, U.S. democracy must be spared the humiliation of default. There is nothing like a clear and present danger to awaken Americans from paranoia, back-biting and selfish greed.
When faced with the looming threat of fiscal ruination, Washington showed the good sense to call on a perceived foe, an imagined adversary, for a helping hand. Beijing, on its part, did right by dropping the sarcastic hints of credit downgrade and stepped forward as a guarantor of U.S. solvency over the tough decade ahead. Both sides woke up to the fact that neither can survive alone since the two economies are interlinked within a common mechanism.
Fragile World Order
However flawed and prone to arbitrary advantage, the institutional order established under Washington’s helm is the fairest for the weak nations and most rational for the strong. By comparison, the fascist spheres and the Soviet-led pact were based on force and obedience, not on law and consent.There are, of course, unspoken rules resembling those of a gentlemen’s club, in that those countries which derive the greater benefit from the international system must bear more of the cost for supporting the weaker, poorer and otherwise disadvantaged nations.With privilege comes responsibility.
Back in the 1970s, an isolated and impoverished China was invited to participate in this system at the beginner level. Over the following three decades, the Chinese made astoundingly quick advances, much of those due to its ever-wider stream of exports. From backward agrarian giant to modern industrial power, China’s accumulation of foreign-currency reserves was made possible by the unseen factors of the value-added tax (VAT) and export tariffs.. These less-than visible taxes on high-end goods were in effect levied on foreign customers, most of them American consumers (rather than by tax on domestic earnings).
In that perspective, China is not expending its own “household budget” in its purchases of Treasury bonds. It is actually recycling American consumers’ dollars back into the U.S. economy, much like the OPEC nations reinvest surplus petrodollars. Beijing is therefore being reasonable in showing some latitude toward the federal deficit and current account imbalance, so long as Washington takes concrete steps to get its own house in order.
The closer ties are also prompted by geopolitical concerns amid worldwide crises – the European bailouts, the ongoing radiation threat from Japan, the fanaticism unleashed by the Arab Spring and relentless environmental degradation. These problems are being exacerbated by the steady movement toward a multipolar world, with regional blocs and second-tier powers asserting themselves by carving out zones of influence. Heightened tensions and violent clashes from the Korean Peninsula to the Mideast now seem so intractable and localized that both Washington and Beijing are showing reluctance in extending their authority over vast swaths of this troubled planet.
What then will be the geopolitical outcome of the emerging U.S.-China partnership? There are many possible variations, but two divergent scenarios provide the broader picture.
First, the New Tang Era. Most historians idealize that dynasty as an exemplar of peace and prosperity, when the force of arms was supplanted by trade and cultural exchange. Any attempt to emulate the Tang could be misguided since the actual situation then was far from perfect. China was not the sole capital on the Silk Road; there were many competing power centers, including Roman Byzantium at the opposite terminus.
After a brief and confused military clash in the Han dynasty, the hegemons of East and West realized that they were at too far a distance to be enemies and would be better off as trading partners. The mutual prosperity from their commerce in luxury goods – glass, gold coins, bejeweled trifles and transparent silk- had the unforeseen negative effect on both societies of spurring vanity, extravagance, self-indulgence, indolence, corruption, debauchery and the debasement of coinage.The privileged elite, who profited without engaging in worthwhile labor, aroused envy and disgruntlement, expressed in rebellions of generals, vassals, tribal chieftains, peasants and the urban plebes.
As in the long-ago past of the Caesars and Tang dynasts, most of today’s bilateral trade is based on luxury rather than necessity. China builds and exports the stuff of dreams – smart phones, high-definition television screens, toys, handbags and fashion in exchange for the fictitious paper currency of fantasy dollars. The seasonal resupply of brand goods, the new opium, suck up ever larger inputs of scarce water, coal-fired electricity, nuclear power, chemicals, toxic additives and migrant labor. Opium is poison.
The addiction to consumerism does not quell the beast within, it only fuels discontent and resentment as shown in the recent London riots. Instead of investing in health-sustaining food, consumers scrimp on a junk diet in order to save for the latest gadget, game or cosmetic surgery.
And so the New Tang will go the way of the Old Tang -with prosperity squandered by a public bedazzled with vapid celebrities like the beauty queen Yang Kuei-fei while the best minds of the age such as Li Bai (Li Po) and Tu Fu are relegated to the social fringe and taunted into open revolt. Paradise on earth ends in looting and flames of civil discord.
A Darker Road
The Second Qing Dynasty – a less seductive alternative to Tang-type dual hegemony – is a continuance of an unequal relationship between the US as tutor and China as pupil. The Chinese cringe at America’s soft power, based on a conspiracy-like campaign to transplant civil institutions onto China’s soil and groom a smug class of ambitious yuppies. Washington has the shameless chutzpah to spend billions on subverting Chinese social values with money borrowed from China. At the end of the day, however, soft power will blow back by training young Chinese in the art of waging a debate against Washington.
The more enduring natural advantage of the American republic lies in its outstanding communicators – such as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – clever at public debate, fast at thinking on their feet, and quick with a quotable phrase. In the world arena, Chinese diplomats and politicians are no match at rhetoric, muttering from prepared texts and ineffectual in projecting a decision or rendering an opinion on their own.
The difference in style is between a bureaucrat and the politician, between the consensus of a hierarchy of committees and delegation of leadership to competent individuals. Bureaucracy was the source of the indecisiveness and capitulation of the late Qing dynasty, just as the apparatus later proved for the Soviet Union. Forward-looking, innovative and courageous officials who could rise to the crisis were defeated not by foreign invaders but by the weak-willed sycophancy of their colleagues. The leadership deficit doomed the Qing political structure and national integrity. Empires are only as strong as their people.
Contemporary China, unlike the territory-rich Qing, has limited space for making similar concessions to delay the inevitable. Adjoining nations such as Vietnam, Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan are unwilling to be played as a card in Beijing’s hand and are capable of making their separate peace with Washington. Any leader who is perceived as a present-day Dowager or a Chinese Gorbachev will likely be confronted by a nationalist upsurge far more threatening than any Jasmine Revolution.
These oppositional factors will inhibit Beijing’s ability to make commitments much less fulfill its promises to Washington.The ineptitude in communication skills prevents the Chinese from taking a convincing role on the world stage, and this failing will frustrate a Washington that needs a confident and expressive partner to sway the regional blocs to support global initiatives and desist from making power grabs. The unwillingness to express an honest opinion also reinforces American mistrust of the Chinese as harboring a hidden agenda.
No Real Gain Without Pain
The traits of character that furthered the Deng Xiaoping policy of economic gain and non-involvement in world affairs – perseverance, patience, conflict avoidance and self-effacement – now work against China in its new executive role as global senior partner. Deprived of genius and heroism, this is an age of conformist mediocrity. Totally absent are the stern dynamism of the Han dynasty, the technical ingenuity of the Song or the revolutionary boldness of the early Ming. China’s native greatness is a thing of the past.
What is thus immediately apparent is that the U.S.-China strategic relationship will be deeply unsatisfactory for both sides, since the alliance is founded upon mutual weakness rather than on underlying strength. It is a holding action at best, aimed at preserving each side’s narrow interests rather than promoting the universal well being. Completely lacking in Washington and Beijing are the will power and moral authority to fundamentally change the destructive economic practices that are causing climate change with its drought and flooding, the spread of radioactivity, pesticide-laced food, chemically-tainted soil, contaminated water, , pandemic diseases, species extinction, proliferating organized crime and the yawning income gap between rich and poor.
The U.S.-China strategic alliance is obviously not going to save the world or even attempt to seriously address any of the major issues. Inside the comfort zone of crystal palaces, ivory towers, posh restaurants, country clubs, executive jets and limousines, the elite members of this emerging partnership will be lucky just to save themselves on the day of reckoning.
Yoichi Shimatsu, Editor at Large with April Media, is former editor of the Japan Times Weekly.