Saturday, May 20, 2006

A China Strategy

As a result of where I live, D.C., I've been hearing a lot recently about the U.S.'s China Strategy. Or more specfically, the U.S.'s lack of a China strategy. It's something I harp on from time to time, and usually offer nothing productive on.

Today, I'd like to take a stab at providing a more constructive version of a U.S. China Strategy. President Bush has said that democratization is a goal of the U.S. in the world right now. I think that is admirable, but I don't think it's realistic to believe the U.S. can (or should) impose/instil/implant democracies around the world. What I think is legitimate for the U.S. to do, and is consistent with the message of President Bush's strategy, if not the content specifically, is to work with other countries to make the world one in which all people have the opportunity to pursue their own course. For some this will lead to democracy; for others not. Singapore is a good example of a country that has so far chosen very little in the way of democratic reform, and yet one in which the people are generally supportive of the government.

When the United States begin to state explicitly that we expect other countries should adopt democractic positions, and that we will act to see that they do, we are terrifying to legitimate state actors around the world. Numerous countries behave in ways that, to an exclusively American perspective, are not democratic--(China, Nigeria, Egypt, Venezuela, Kenya, to name a few)--but for the most part, we have found ways to engage each of these actors in a constructive way.

The more countries we engage with constructively, the more we tie the world together, and the more difficult we make conflict. The less conflict, the more development, the more safety, and the more opportunity for people around the world. We can engage economically (trade, investment), we can engage culturally (artist and performer exchanges), we can engage through education (study abroad and foreign exchange programs for young people and scholars). Each of these makes significant contribution to the real ties that bring countries, people, and cultures together. Having embassies and joint press conferences are not the activities that bring countries together--they are only symbols of a togetherness already knit.

This week marked the final steps in the building of the physical wall that is the Three Gorges Dam in China. Any time a government invests in a project, it is an indication of the government's priorities. The Three Gorges Dam, as one of the largest public-construction projects of the past 100 years, is a big indicator of China's priorities: energy, water, control of the environment. When one couples this 16 year project with China's upsurge in diplomacy and contract-acquisition in international energy and commodity markets, it becomes clear that China views its economic growth as a paramount issue, and that steady, secure sources of energy and resources to facilitate this growth are fundamental to China's government.

Many in the U.S. see this as a form of Chinese expansionism. They're right. China is far more cognicent of the economic concept of the growth-limitting factor: growth is limitted by whatever factor is the most scarce. It is a country that has almost 25% of the world's population and only 6% of the world's arable land. The U.S.? Almost the inverse. We have something like 6% of the world's population and about 20% of the arable land. China knows what it is to be stuck between a rock and hard place. And they aren't willing to be crushed without giving it a fighting chance.

Those in the U.S. that see China as a strategic competitor, or a strategic threat are making a reasonable and logical assessment of where China is and where it wants to go. But I believe they are also locked into a zero-sum view of profits, the world, and resource availability. Even if the U.S. and China were fighting over the last available barrel of oil in the world, it could become a shooting war, or it could become an opportunity to bring the countries closer together.

China is a country, like the U.S., with numerous vast and deep problems. In fact the two countries share many of the same problems: We are countries addicted to resources we do not control, and whose prices are skyrocketing. We are countries experiencing major crises of confidence in our political leadership. We are countries with significant public-debt problems threatening to bring down decades of carefully crafted economic growth. We are countries with major economic and educational opportunitiy variance between distinct regions.

All of these issues should make it easier for China and the U.S.'s leadership to understand each other more effectively. This frequently doesn't happen, however, because there are major cultural differeneces between the U.S. and China that continue to get in the way with how things are done. These differences provide the basis for the opportunity to turn the last barrel in the world into a cooperative endeavor instead of a shooting war.

One of America's great advantages is the ability to absorb things. Ideas. Concepts. Peoples. Customs. There is a reason that it's hard to get a good hot dog in Germany. The German's might have turned sausage-eating into a national cuisine, but Americans have turned Bratwurst and Kielbasa into an Oscar Meyer Wiener. We've taken small plaza cafes and turned them into a worldwide octopus: Starbucks. We've stolen words: C note; hors de'vours; long time no see; gringo; and made them American. This is something Chinese have not yet become adept at--nor has any of our European counterparts.

So what? Is this pertinent? Yes. Because it is this adaptability, and the creativity that is part of it, that can allow the U.S. and the Chinese to cooperate and grow closer together, even as the competition for resources becomes more intense. Seem crazy? Just crazy enough to work.

Without significant shocks to the economic system, the world's apetite for energy and resources is going to continue to grow over the next 10-15 years. Without significant changes in technology and resource utilization, this means the cost for resources and energy will go through the roof, and only the very wealthy will be able to grow at the pace they need to satisfy internal political conditions.

No one will be wealthy enough for that to work. So, if the U.S. wants to start cultivating China as a colleague instead of a competitor, it needs to start harnessing the ingenuity and sophistication inherent in a people who can memorize decades of baseball statistics, and who know enough about mechanics and engineering to design car-performance modifications on the back of a budweiser label. If we put these skills into using resources smarter, and getting more with less, we'd reduce our own demand for resources and energy, and at the same time, we could sell this technology to China who would love to have it, in order to reduce their own dependence on international commodities.

So why don't we start working together?

1 comment:

ChebMary said...

Interesting post....This is a little bit off topic, but I just have to put it out there. While I think that Bush's emphasis on democracy is a little naive and unrealistic, the cost of engaging with undemocratic regimes is also high, at least with regards to Egypt. The result of the America's engagement with the Egyptian regime is widespread resentment among Egyptians towards the US. I don't know, maybe Egypt is a special case, and maybe this isn't true for other countries. But, the perception that the US supports the brutal Mubarak regime does not make the US very popular in Egypt....Just my 2 cents.