In the Arena

2010: The China Challenge

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A prediction: 2010 will be the year when China’s persistent failure to act responsibly on the world stage–its persistent amoral mercantilism–becomes a central global issue. In the recent past, the world’s assorted globalists and do-gooders had an easy target in the United States, given the Bush Administration’s disdain for international cooperation. But Barack Obama has removed that target. The President has made a significant effort to work within a multilateral context. He has worked hard to build an international coalition to bring Iran into compliance with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, for example. The Iranians have now thumbed their nose at the world and so it is time for sanctions–but the Chinese stand as the primary obstacle to an effective, united front necessary for sanctions to proceed (the Russians are also opposed, but may be persuadable).

And this account of the closed-door negotiations in Copenhagen (hat tip: Ben Smith) makes it clear that the Chinese were the party of no when it came to climate talks as well. There are areas where the Chinese have shown some willingness to cooperate–in North Korea, Pakistan and Afghanistan. But all of those are in China’s immediate national security interests, especially fear of Islamic extremism in its west. The true mark of international responsibility is the willingness to work in the world’s long-term interests on less immediate, but ultimately devastating issues like climate change and nuclear proliferation. The Chinese have shown little desire to do so, certainly none of the leadership one expects from an emerging economic power.

There are those who say the Chinese have ultimate leverage over us, given the amount of U.S. debt they hold–but I’d say the opposite: if there ever was an enterprise too big to fail, it is the United States. We hold plenty of cards, not least of which is the effect on the Chinese economy–and the value of their U.S. bond-holdings–of a U.S. economic meltdown or inflation. We are locked in an economic superpower death grip: both countries need the other to prosper.

And so, another prediction: In 2009, Barack Obama took significant steps to show the world that the U.S. wanted to be a good neighbor, to act cooperatively and lead creatively. He has built international credibility as a result–and in 2010, he will begin to use it and, as he did in Copenhagen, begin to demand publicly that the Chinese live up to their international responsibilities…and, privately, to make it clear to the Chinese that the U.S. can be less amenable, in a variety of ways, than it has been.