Be Nice to China

President Barack Obama tours the Great Wall in Badaling, China, November 18

President Barack Obama tours the Great Wall in Badaling, China, November 18 (White House/Pete Souza)

In The Washington Post, Robert Kagan and Dan Blumenthal describe the Obama Administration’s new approach toward China as “accommodating”. What this entails precisely, no one knows, but what we do know is that the White House likes to call its policy “strategic reassurance,” or: convincing the Chinese that they’re really not out to bomb Bejing any time soon. It’s about time.

Up until now, Washington still seemed to consider China a future rival more than anything. The previous administration did very little to change that view. Quite to the contrary, it launched a partnership with Australia, India and Japan to counterbalance China’s growing naval potential; a potential that is greatly overestimated anyway. Moreover, China is virtually ignored when it comes to Afghanistan although it has shown itself able and willing to contribute to the economic reconstruction of the country.

In a speech this summer before the Council on Foreign Relations, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally appeared to put some distance between the Sinophobia of the previous years and her own approach. She wants to encourage all rising powers to become “full partners” in her multilateral world while acknowleding China’s economic significance to the United States.

Henry Kissinger, also writing for The Washington Post, admits that, as America’s foremost creditor today, “China has a degree of economic leverage unprecedented in the US experience.” As a consequence, the country allows itself to operate a bit more independently and a bit more boldly across the globe. The relation is shifting however, for Chinese exports to the United States will decline over time as the Chinese begin to strengthen their own market, bolstering consumption and infrastructure.

China will be less dependent on the American market, while the growing dependence of neighboring countries on Chinese markets will increase China’s political influence. Political cooperation, in shaping a new world order, must increasingly compensate for the shift in trade patterns.

That’s all good and true and while Obama’s “strategic reassurance” is a step in the right direction, not everyone is convinced. The Chinese themselves still believe it necessary to assure the Americans that they have no “hidden agenda” while opinion makers everywhere warn of the coming conflict which to the casual reader must seem like something of an inevitability by now.

The truth is far from that. China rather avoids doing anything to upset the Americans but to no avail: every move they make, be it diplomatically, economically or militarily, is typically interpreted as yet another sign that the two powers or on collision course. That is especially unfortunate because the Sino-American relationship is bound to define the twenty-first century, one way or another.