The most important foreign policy challenge facing the U.S. government over the next decade will be dealing with a resurgent and more assertive China. Regrettably, the American media, the public, and Republican presidential hopefuls show far more interest on Iran, Syria, Israel and Afghanistan. Why?
The absence of any flare-up in U.S.-China relations is a major reason. In addition, most Americans are not interested in foreign policy problems. As high unemployment, a sagging economy, and anger at Wall Street now take center stage, the public seems unconcerned that China holds the largest share of U.S. foreign debt and continues to manipulate its currency exchange to bolster exports.
In his new book, That Used to be Us, Tom Friedman recounts a recent visit to China and his amazement at the huge strides the country has made in twenty years to modernize its cities, transportation system, and export industries.. He compares this unfavorably with America's lagging economy and continuing high unemployment.
Friedman and co-author, Michael Mandelbaum, offer this remedy for the situation and for restoring America's greatness: "The right option for us is not to become more like China. It is to become more like ourselves." They urge Americans to restore the "can do" spirit that made American ingenuity and productivity the envy of the world. The late Steve Jobs is an example of this entrepreneurial spirit.
The challenge for Barack Obama and successor presidents is how to navigate U.S. relations with China during a time when the latter's economy booms along while the United States is mired in debt and deeply divided politically over how to economize. Both the State Department and Pentagon face deep budget cuts that affect our diplomatic operations abroad and our ability to protect allies and challenge potential enemies, including China. This comes at a time when nationalists in China seek to reestablish China's historical hegemony in East Asia.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta took account of this problem by stating during a recent visit to Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia that no cutbacks in the U.S. military's presence in East Asia would be made as the department downsizes.
China's long-term challenge to the United States is the subject of Henry Kissinger‘s monumental new book titled, On China. The former secretary of state and an elder statesman traces China's thousands year-old history to underline the major influence that the past has on China's current leaders.
Two factors stand out from a reading of this history: First, China's claim to be Asia's leading historical power and that neighboring countries should pay it homage; Second, although China shows great patience in pursuing its foreign policy objectives, it will respond forcefully when confronted militarily by outside powers.
Kissinger, like other historians, makes a case that China's current drive for preeminence in East Asia results from its humiliations in the 19th century at the hands of European powers. In the Opium Wars, Britain used its Navy to compel China to submit, and Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and others then carved out humiliating trading zones in the country. These remained into the 20th century.
Kissinger gives a personal account of China's transition from Mao Zedong's brutal totalitarian rule, which nearly destroyed the country in the 1960s Cultural Revolution, to the radical free-market policies of his successor, Deng Xiaoping. That program has now propelled China into the ranks of economic superpower.
Both Kissinger and Jon Huntsman, a former U.S. ambassador to China and a current candidate for president, agree on this key point: China and the United States are so linked economically and strategically that they must resolve their differences through diplomacy, not shows of military power.
Nationalist elements in both China and the United States blame the other country for policies that harm their national interests. Chinese hardliners are convinced that America wants to "contain" China, to prevent it from taking its rightful place as preeminent power in Asia. U.S. nationalists argue that China seeks to replace U.S. influence in Asia, and employs unfair trading methods to enhance its power.
Were hard-line views to become government policy in Beijing or Washington, Kissinger suggests, the world would enter a dangerous stage. As a result, a U.S. president must take account of growing confidence among some of China's younger generation that time is on China's side and that it might be time to challenge U.S. influence in Asia.
A key signpost of China's intentions will be whether it decides to build a strong navy to bolster its ambitious in the South China Sea where it claims historical rights over islands also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned China last year that preserving freedom of navigation in this area is a vital U.S. interest. It was a signal to Chinese nationalists that hopes of converting this strategic area into a Chinese sphere of influence will be resisted.
Whether diplomacy can resolve this and other issues depends on prudent leaders in each country, and whether cooler heads will prevail over local hot heads.
File last modified on Tuesday, 15-NOV-2011 1:00 PM EST