It’s Not All About Us

Saw an interesting column in the Newsweek online edition by Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy Professor Daniel Drezner (also an active blogger at Foreign Policy (http://drezner.foreignpolicy.com/).  The article is titled “Fearing China” (http://www.newsweek.com/id/198586) and it touches on a subject that has been on my mind for some time.

Drezner discusses several of the recent economic statements/activities by China that have garnered a lot of attention, including PBOC Governor Zhou Xiaochuan’s statement re the need for a new international reserve currency, the increase in China’s purchases of gold (allegedly to reduce its purchases of US debt), Premier Wen’s publicly expressed concerns over the future value of China’s dollar holdings, etc.  His conclusion (with which I concur) is that in all cases there is less here than meets the eye as far as an impact on global economic affairs is concerned.  In the final two paragraphs of the article he goes to say:

“If these moves do not amount to much, then why all the hubbub? To be blunt, America is out of practice at dealing with an independent source of national power. For two decades the United States has been the undisputed global hegemon. For the 40 years before that, America was the leader of the free world. As a result, American thinkers and policymakers have become accustomed to having all policy decisions of consequence go through Washington. Our current generation of leaders and thinkers are simply unprepared for the idea of other countries taking the lead in matters of the global economic order.

Most of China’s recent actions do not constitute a real threat to the United States; indeed, to the extent that China helps to boost the economies of the Pacific Rim, they are contributing a public good. Obama—and Huntsman—need to make the mental adjustment to a rising China, welcoming many of China’s policy initiatives while pushing back at those that threaten American core interests. If they can make this cognitive leap, then Sino-American relations can proceed on the basis of shared interests rather than mutual fears.”

Drezner has touched on significant issue.  I’m not much of an historian and will defer to his judgment re the roots of the problem (as described in the first of the two paragraphs quoted above).  But to me there are too many Americans who fall into the trap of thinking that if China proposes a change to the global economic (or political) system it must be aimed at undercutting the US.

To me, there is a big difference between:

1.  The idea that China has different interests than the US in certain areas and as it becomes more important it will expect its views to be taken into account to a larger degree than in the past, and some of the changes it proposes will be disadvantageous for the US.

VS

2.  The idea that China is pushing certain proposals WITH THE GOAL OF undermining the US.

The first is the natural result of different countries having different interests, coupled with the challenges of incorporating a rising power into the global system.  The second is a conscious, unfriendly effort by one country to weaken another.

Let’s take the issue of the future of the US dollar.  Against the backdrop of the current economic crisis it seems to me China has a legitimate set of concerns about being forever locked into a situation in which the dollar is the sole reserve currency.  Arguably their interests would be better served by a reserve currency composed of a basket of national currencies and this is the idea that PBOC Chairman Zhou Xiaochuan raised for international discussion.  At the same time, a move away from the dollar as the international reserve currency would be a negative for the US.  However, that is not the same as saying that China is talking about such an idea for the purpose of harming the US.

At the end of the day, this is all a question of attitudes and intentions.  If China is pursuing a policy that is detrimental to the US – regardless of the motivation — of course we will need, as Drezner puts it, to be “pushing back at those that threaten American core interests”.  But my concern is that there remain too many people in the US who inevitably jump to the “China is out to get us” conclusion.  This creates a corrosive atmosphere in bilateral relations.  Most of China’s policy proposals are not about us but rather reflect rational expressions of Chinese national interests.  Recognizing this fact won’t lessen the degree to which we have differences, but it will create a better foundation for resolving them.

Note:  This question of course is a perfect example of mirror imaging.  There are still a frighteningly large number of people in China who are inclined to view most US moves in the global arena as aimed at weakening or containing China.  They too need to get over this.

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