Between the Beijing Olympics and the U.S. presidential race, we are going to hear a lot about China in the coming year. In our nation’s capital, and on the campaign trail, policymakers and politicians tend to paint China as a threat, suggesting that its economic growth means the U.S. is falling behind or that its strength is inherently dangerous.
Americans don’t necessarily see it that way. A recent Zogby poll revealed that 52% of the American public holds a favorable impression of China. But only 35% of congressional staffers do. And 86% of those staffers think, wrongly, that Americans have a negative view of China.
John Q. Public has it more right than the politicos. America’s relationship with China is not zero-sum. Like other world powers -- India, Russia, Japan and the European Union -- China is more partner than threat. Many of our security interests overlap.
China actually helps us protect our shores from radiological terrorist attacks by allowing the U.S. to station inspectors in the ports of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Shenzhen, the key departure points for more than 3 million shipping containers headed to the West Coast each year. Like it or not, we also rely on China -- ground zero for avian influenza and other potential pandemics -- to spot and contain outbreaks. Without Beijing’s deep involvement and cooperation, the U.S. will never persuade North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. Together, the U.S. and China represent both the problem and the solution to the global climate crisis.
As it gains influence, China no doubt will continue to give solace to America’s detractors, such as Hugo Chavez, and to derail U.S. plans that do not further its interests, as in the case of U.N. sanctions against Iran. But China is not a direct military threat, nor could it be for decades to come. Moreover, because China and the U.S. posses nuclear weapons, mutual deterrence will discourage a clash, as it did during the Cold War. Even with the status of Taiwan, which remains the most dangerous flash point, there is ample room for peaceful outcomes. Direct confrontation between the U.S. and China could certainly occur -- it would not be the first time a war made no sense -- but what a disaster that would be for the world economy and global stability.
Even on the economic front, where the news is full of reports of how China manipulates its currency, buys our companies and takes our jobs, the big picture is positive. Overall, its economic growth buoys our own. Trade with China has been responsible for measurable if modest growth in our GDP. Morgan Stanley estimates that China’s cheap exports have extended the paychecks of low-income Americans to the tune of $600 billion over 10 years.
Many of the criticisms don’t really hold up. All of foreign outsourcing is only responsible for about 2% of the jobs lost in the U.S. If the U.S. is to avert recession, it will be in part because of the dynamism of economies like China’s -- and because the Chinese are willing to invest in American companies.
Finally, China is not an ideological competitor. It doesn’t have a coherent ideology to export even if it wanted to, beyond, perhaps, “Show me the money.” Beijing trades with despicable regimes, but it certainly isn’t alone in that regard. We rightly deplore how China represses its citizens, and the U.S. should call Beijing to task forcefully, but we have to acknowledge that our leverage to influence its internal political evolution is very limited.
We cannot rule out that China will become a hostile aggressor one day, and our military must stay prepared for that distant threat. For now, though, the challenge is this: How can we channel China’s energy into solving the raft of pressing global problems? How can we get Beijing to pay for the privilege of having a seat at the big power table?
China’s growth will cause some Americans to lose their jobs or get paid less. But it is America’s job to ensure that our working class is equipped to deal with these disruptions -- not China’s. And it is America’s job to address the problems that hamper our nation’s ability to thrive in a world with multiple strong powers: our broken education system, expensive and inadequate healthcare, budget deficit, crumbling infrastructure and an addiction to oil. All these are problems we have to solve ourselves.
In an election year, it is always tempting for politicians to point the finger at another country. But American voters shouldn’t buy it. We should stay focused on the country we have the power to change.