China’s president, Hu Jintao, arrives in Washington tonight for a four day state visit. There is no shortage of topics for discussion between Hu and President Obama.
In 1972, there was only one thing that brought the United States and China together: the growing strategic power of the Soviet Union. That shared worry led President Richard Nixon on his historic trip to Beijing, where the Chinese Communists welcomed him and American help to balance the Soviet threat. Back then, our relationship was defined solely by the strategic concern about the significant build-up of Soviet nuclear weapons.
Today, the relationship between the U.S. and China is almost solely driven by economic matters. My, what a difference nearly 40 years makes.
There will be some strategic issues discussed this week. China has been increasingly assertive in the South China, East China, and Yellow Seas, where the U.S. fleet operates. It has also issued careless claims of sovereignty over disputed areas, provoking unnecessary conflict. It has let its client state, North Korea, run wild. Over the past few months, the North has attacked and killed citizens of South Korea (our ally) with impunity. And China has been engaging in a military build-up not entirely unlike the Soviet one that had Deng Xiapeng so panicked in 1972. Today Beijing is building new aircraft carriers to dominate not just the Pacific Ocean but global waters; it is developing a new ballistic missile capability; and it just tested a new stealth fighter jet. These are serious military and strategic matters that will be discussed this week. The American president will challenge the Chinese president on his plans and intentions. At least I hope he will.
But economic issues will dominate the week. Obama will speak to Hu sternly (again, I hope) about the undervalued Chinese currency, the subsidies doled out to state industries, and the theft of intellectual property, all of which give Chinese goods hugely unfair advantages. Hu will listen politely, make a note to talk to his communist leadership about them, and then go back to China and continue business as usual. That’s when he’s not publicly dissing the dollar. But it’s still important to air these issues publicly and get Hu on the record about them.
For the Chinese, their major concern is the value of their holdings of U.S. assets. They hold nearly $1 trillion of our debt. If they were to stop buying our debt, we’d be screwed. They’re worried about potential losses from a rapid sell-off in Treasuries, so they’re looking for Obama to reassure them that U.S. debt remains safe. They will also lecture Obama about astronomical government spending and debt, and the dangers of inflation.
Savor the irony of that: the Chinese Communists will lecture the American capitalists about too much spending and the need for fiscal responsibility.
Well, if Obama won’t listen to the American people, maybe he’ll listen to the Chinese commies.
It would also be nice if Obama got tough on human rights. In 2009, Hillary Clinton dissed everyone suffering under the jackboot of Chinese oppression by giving a speech that gave the Chinese a complete pass on human rights. The Chinese heard that and went to town, jailing, torturing, and killing democracy advocates, ethnic minorities, and Catholics, among others. As of last week, she has backed away from her previous “see no evil” position, and it would be heartening to see Obama take the Chinese on on this life-and-death issue.
Who’s on first? Hu’s on first on many issues. But Obama has a real chance this week to step up and be an authoritative and principled American president. Let’s see if he does it, for once.
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