For the sake of all of us, Hu Jintao and George Bush need to get on
The meetings between the US president and the Chinese president are now the most important events on the international calendar. The former represents the most powerful country in the world, while the latter represents the second largest economy and the next superpower. They need to meet and, for the sake of us all, they need to get on. But the mood music surrounding this latest meeting is a reminder that there are growing tensions and conflicts in the US-China relationship.
The issue that most preoccupies is economic. There is mounting pressure within Congress for tariffs against various Chinese imports, together with demands that China revalues the yuan. The problem is not China. It is the fact that the dollar is seriously over-valued. Nor will tariffs mean that the US will make the goods that China now exports. The real problem is not China but the fact that the US economy is living beyond its means with its huge budget deficit and trade deficits. These economic tensions, however, aren’t going to go away. On the contrary, they seem likely to grow more serious.
The tensions are not just economic. Nor should we be in the least surprised about that. As China becomes increasingly powerful, its global presence and interests are expanding rapidly. As a result, there are more and more grounds for disagreement between the two powers. It is all happening very quickly, as one should expect with a country growing at 10% per annum, whose economy doubles in size roughly every seven years. Cast your mind back to the Iraq war. China voted against the invasion in the UN security council, but left all the rhetoric to others, notably France. Iran is quite different. China is getting a little bolder and becoming more proactive: with Russia, it is the main opponent of economic sanctions and military threats.
Then there is the question of Chinese interests in Sudan. And the attempted takeover by CNPC, the Chinese oil giant, of Unilocal, the US oil firm. There is the running sore of Taiwan, now joined by the increasingly anti-Chinese stance of Japan, encouraged by the United States. One could go on.
Despite all this, relations between the two countries remain reasonable. But for how long? One hopes for a very long time, but one fears the contrary. Dominant nations rarely cede their power without a fight, unless they are exhausted and implode, like the Soviet Union did. That is certainly not the American condition. The rise of China implies that the United States will lose some of its power. It might not only be a zero-sum game, but that, for sure, is one dimension of the dynamic between the two. This process is already under way in east Asia, with China getting stronger and the United States weaker.
This is a recipe for growing conflict and tension. How the United States and China handle this will be very important for the whole world. Ever since 9/11 the overwhelming attention of the west, including Europe, has been focused on the Middle East and the “war on terror”. It has always been a nonsense to regard Islamist terrorism as a serious threat to the security of the United States. The “war on terror” was a neo-conservative device to create the political and ideological conditions for the emergence of a more unilateralist and aggressive US foreign policy.
The key faultline of the future does not lie anywhere near the Middle East but in the relationship between Beijing and Washington. That is why Hu Jintao and George Bush, and their successors, should keep talking and why these meetings will become more and more the focus of the world’s attention.