China should not be our next whipping boy
With a sort-of withdrawal from Iraq in progress, and a scheduled withdrawal from Afghanistan approaching, Washington needs a fresh adversary. How about China?
China is big and getting bigger. Its wealth and power is increasing. Itâ€™s inscrutable, whatever that means. (Just try understanding the United States.) And according to super-secret intelligence reports, China is pursuing national interest. This canâ€™t be allowed — weâ€™ve got to confront them!
Of course it is a standby of politics for governments to create international adversaries, in order to deflect criticism away from themselves. Thereâ€™s a theory â€“ best expressed in the great spoof Report From Iron Mountain — that while dictatorships can issue orders, democracies need enemies in order to prevent free men and women from saying, â€śTo heck with central government.â€ť
Polls suggest many Americans right now are contemplating the phrase â€śto heck with central government,â€ť so perhaps Barack Obamaâ€™s White House thinks voters will be distracted if China is converted into an adversary. The idea is not new — the George W. Bush White House attempted the same.
When the younger Bush took office, the international scene was fairly tranquil, and at that point, people were tired of hearing Saddam Hussein blamed for everything. So Bush started talking tough about Beijing. This culminated in the Hainan Island incident, which raised international tensions. Cable news was abuzz with confronting China; Dick Cheney darkly hinted of war. The Council on Foreign Relations went to red alert.
Then 9/11 happened, and the China menace disappeared from headlines. Though not from intellectual discourse: this 2005 issue of The Atlantic, home to the very best general-interest public- policy writing, had â€śHow We Would Fight Chinaâ€ť as its main cover headline.
The cover photomontage, in creepy distorted color, shows an ominous, slanty-eyed sailor. Maybe he has inscrutable intentions! The Chinese sailor stands in front of, well, you can’t really tell, but the stuff in the background looks threatening too. â€śThe American military contest with China in the Pacific will define the twenty-first century. And China will be a more formidable adversary than Russia,â€ť The Atlantic warned.
Is the Chinese navy really a threat? Politically, is Beijing â€śnewly assertiveâ€ť or merely going through a natural transition as its stature grows? Do Beijingâ€™s stances on exchange rates, trade and security threaten the United States, as opposed to merely annoying us? Because we annoy the living bejeezus out of them.
The United States wishes China would float its currency, rather than sustain fixed rates that promote Chinese trade. Governments make national policy based, usually, on what they believe advances their national interest. They may be wrong â€“ maybe China should indeed stop managing the renminbi. But itâ€™s ridiculous for Washington to act all horrified about Beijing using money to pursue its vision of national interest: if other nations told Americans how to use our money, weâ€™d be outraged.
It is highly unrealistic for America to think China will fund the U.S. borrowing binge by purchasing Treasury bills; and also suppress its own consumption, while underwriting our middle class living standards by selling us cheap goods; and then also manage their currency to our liking.
U.S. political posturing about currency exchange rates go back at least as far back as the Ronald Reagan administration. American interest groups complain about exchange rates because this feels like something Washington should be able to control, whereas larger economic trends arenâ€™t controlled by any government. When strong currencies benefit America, U.S. interest groups demand that. When weak currencies benefit us, we switch demands
Timothy Geithner just said:
G-20 emerging market countries with significantly undervalued currencies and adequate precautionary reserves need to allow their exchange rates to adjust fully over time to levels consistent with economic fundamentals.
Now, to whom could he be referring? Imagine how infuriating Beijing must find this sort of condescending hectoring, especially from a nation whose leaders will not take any step at all to put their own fiscal house in order.
China has many internal problems, including human rights abuses, corruption, pollution and lack of free speech. Chinaâ€™s relationship with Taiwan is a tense mess. The Han mistreat the Tibetans. The list of Chinaâ€™s faults could go on at some length.
But in the main, there has never been a superpower relationship like the one between Washington and Beijing — mainly constructive, mainly cooperative, neither side positioning to destroy the other.
The worldâ€™s largest public works endeavor — the $75 billion South-to-North Water Transfer Project in its early stages in China — could be smashed from the air in a day by United States precision-guided bombs. China is building the project because Chinese leaders assume they will never go to war with the United States. Thatâ€™s what we should assume too — and not make China into a distant whipping boy for our own domestic problems that U.S. leaders are afraid to face.
Should the United States fear the Chinese navy?
China is expanding its navy, which today is equipped only for coastal operation, though perhaps someday will venture into the â€śblue waterâ€ť where the United States Navy rules. Not long ago, the U.S. Navy and Chinese navy (its delightful formal name is the Army Navy) conducted joint exercises. Recently they have not, though China just conducted a joint naval exercise with Australia. Here is the Pentagonâ€™s latest report on the Chinese military, which is decidedly non-alarmist.
This is the warship in the background of the 2005 The Atlantic cover. Itâ€™s the lead ship of a class that was cancelled, which makes it sound a lot less menacing. The vessel is a guided-missile destroyer. China has a handful of this type, while the United States Navy has many dozens. The United States has large numbers of more potent guided-missile cruisers, and a huge lead in nuclear attack submarines capable of long stays submerged: any one of them could eat the entire Chinese surface fleet for lunch.
The United States has 11 supercarrier strike groups: China doesnâ€™t even have an aircraft carrier, let alone a supercarrier strike group. China has purchased unwanted medium-sized aircraft carriers from Moscow and is tinkering with them, though none sail. China is believed to be designing its own 50,000-ton conventional-power aircraft carrier, which would be similar to what the United States called a â€śfleet carrierâ€ť during World War II, and not as powerful as the 100,000-ton nuclear supercarriers the United States builds at enormous expense.
Todayâ€™s Chinese navy would not dare throw a stone at the United States Navy, and that relationship should continue for a generation or more. Will it change eventually?
By toying with aircraft carriers, China may be testing the waters, as it were. In the mid-1930s, when treaties forbid Germany from building heavy combatant vessels, Hitler ordered construction of â€śpocket battleships,â€ť largely to see how Paris and London would respond. When they did nothing, he approvedÂ a rearming program for the Germany navy.
Certainly Beijing might be engaged in modest naval expansion to see how we respond, thinking that decades from now, it too will command supercarrier strike groups. Friendly Washington-Beijing relations seem a better hedge against that day than scowling and finger-wagging. The United States asserts a unilateral right to sail as many advanced warships as it pleases. On what grounds could this right be denied to China?