None other than Zbigniew Brzezinski, eminent United States foreign policy guru and the man who gave the former Soviet Union “its Vietnam”, thundered via the New York Times that the current summit between presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao is “the most important top-level United States-Chinese encounter since Deng Xiaoping’s historic trip more than 30 years ago”.
Dr Zbig could have extended his hyperbole to the cosmic geopolitical shifts operating these past 30 years, not to mention 40 years, if one considers the historic meeting between Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon and the Great Helmsman Mao Zedong in 1972 in Beijing.
But it’s really thanks to the Little Helmsman Deng’s visionary “crossing the river while feeling the stones” policy, sold to the proletarian masses as a blunt “to get rich is glorious”, that China is where the action is in the early 21st century.
And that brings us to the current Google-GM summit. Yes, for the toiling global masses, this is what it’s all about. China is like Google. You just can’t live without it. If you’re searching for something, anything, you hit Google. The US is like General Motors. With so much to offer on show, from the practical (Hyundai) to the glamorous (Aston Martin), who in his right mind wants to buy a car from GM? (OK, successful entrepreneurs in Chengdu do buy made-in-China Buicks, but that’s another story.)
Nothing paints the overall picture so starkly as the mad scrambling that has been going on for weeks by every single Wall Street CEO to assure a seat at the – imperial – White House state dinner in homage to Hu. It’s already one of the defining marks of the young century – sturdy Anglo Saxon advocates of laissez faire transformed into ardent defenders of Chinese-style authoritarian capitalism. What else? After all, China saved Western turbo-capitalism – fulfilling the Little Helmsman’s plans to the letter. Not to mention China controls 21% – and counting – of all US Treasury debt, and the Chinese central bank is swimming in 25% of the world’s reserves.
Hu for his part, acted – what else – imperially; the top two on his guest list are the mayors of San Francisco and Oakland, the first two Sino-Americans to govern US metropolises. Quite a few red-blooded Americans also would kill to sit at this table. After all, 44% of them, according to a recent Pew Research poll, believe that China’s gross domestic product has already overtaken America’s (when in fact this may happen anytime between 2018 and 2027). Perception is indeed reality.
Feel free to bask in my glow
Dr Zbig is fundamentally correct on US-China relations when he warns about “a drift into escalating reciprocal demonization”. He’s also correct in denouncing the deteriorating US infrastructure as “merely a symptom of the country’s slide backwards into the 20th century”. But buckets of Moet can be bet that any of those Wall Street CEOs fighting to get crumbs from Hu’s table are not exactly losing sleep over how the US domestic economy, jobs base and infrastructure can be revitalized – not to mention investment in education.
As a side effect of the Wall Street-provoked financial crisis, China has embarked on a slew of infrastructure projects. Unlike China – where the central government really rules – Washington has been asking US banks to lend. But the banks, as everyone knows, don’t give a damn.
For all the usual media platitudes about a “tense” relationship, there won’t be any strident summit talk about the yuan’s competitive devaluation. Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner himself has admitted that Beijing has devalued the yuan, in real terms, at around 10% annually.
Neither will Obama have much leeway to press China on North Korea. South Korea may want reunification. Japan fears it like the plague – imagine a powerful, dynamic, unified Korea further plunging Tokyo into global irrelevancy. What Beijing wants is the current status quo.
And then there’s the Chinese response to the Pentagon’s “full-spectrum dominance” doctrine – China’s new J-20 stealth fighter crossing the blue winter skies above Pentagon supremo Robert Gates last week. Gates quickly went pre-emptive on the record to stress that the Chinese won’t master the technology before 2020. But that’s not the point – as the frenetic spinning of a split between the party and the army in China was also not the point.
Any Hollywood public relations expert would admit that the J-20 photo op was a showstopper. It was a carefully coordinated co-production between the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army. And the MC was none other than Xi Jinping, sure to be the next top Chinese leader when Hu steps down in 2012. When you have the USS George Washington dropping into your backyard once in a while, you better come up with some stealth. And China’s first aircraft carrier is the next blockbuster, scheduled for 2014.
Princeton’s John Ikenberry defines the US as a “liberal leviathan”. Where does that leave China – as an “authoritarian leviathan”?
Anyway, the word in Washington is that the White House National Security Council team – coordinated by National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon – is seriously trying to come up with a credible China strategy. But it’s unlikely that an overall framework encompassing all the burning issues concerning this Group of Two will emerge from the summit.
Ian Morris, professor of classics and history at Stanford, starts his splendid book Why the West Rules – For Now (New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) with a fictional account of Queen Victoria, in 1848, kowtowing to Qiying, the envoy of Emperor Daoguang, at the East India docks in London, and paying her respects to imperial suzerainty. Of course history dictated otherwise. But, the Chinese would say, taking a cue from the Wall Street CEOs salivating over Hu, let’s wait a few more years and then we’ll talk. Meanwhile, the world will keep going the Google, not the GM way.