The Lukewarm War With China

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, April 16, 2006

Chinese President Hu Jintao visits the White House this week hoping to update Chairman Mao's adage about who rules whom: In an era of global commerce and finance, power flows from the spout of an oil well and a mountain of foreign currency reserves.

It is in Hu's interests to underline to President Bush and to Congress that a balance of economic terror exists today between America and Asia. Just as the doctrine of mutually assured destruction restrained the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the prospect of mutual financial ruin keeps suspicions and hostility between Beijing and Washington loosely in check today, even if gun barrels still count as well.

It is in U.S. interests that Thursday's meeting be conducted as carefully as American presidents handled U.S.-Soviet summits in the age of nuclear confrontation. That will require a mixture of firmness and flexibility rooted in America's own values and interests, rather than in accepting Hu's special pleadings and his analysis of where modern power lies.

There are strong American reasons not to brandish economic "rockets" such as the recent unrealistic threats in the Senate of self-punishing tariffs against Chinese imports or to play on Chinese fears of encirclement as some military planners here seem to enjoy doing. These reasons go beyond simply avoiding the obvious damage that Beijing could do to the value of the dollar and the U.S. economy by abruptly dumping the huge quantities of Treasury bonds it buys with the proceeds of its surging bilateral trade surplus.

Bush and Hu should construct their meeting to produce joint agendas on global energy conservation, currency exchange fluctuations and investment codes of conduct as the global economy enters a particularly uncertain moment. Cold War rules negotiated to avoid "breakouts" by either side on nuclear weapons could be a conceptual model for new agreements to stabilize a delicate balance of financial and trade instruments.

The United States has prepared the ground for such an effort through Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick's calls for China to become "a responsible stakeholder" in an international system that conveys enormous material benefits to the Communist Party bosses and the workers of the Middle Kingdom.

Bush should push for a more urgent response from Hu than inaction and indirection. Those have been Beijing's chief instruments in buying the time and the international acceptance it needs over the next decade to become the world's manufacturing hub and then, further out in time, a global technological and military power.

The two men do not meet in a vacuum. The growing international confrontation with Iran over that nation's nuclear program is roiling the world's oil and gold markets. Political muddles in France and Italy point to a coming rough patch in foreign exchange markets. A Sino-U.S. summit that ends in a lack of clarity on the economic challenges of the day represents a perilous outcome in these circumstances.

Beneath the economic turbulence lies a spreading lack of political legitimacy and vitality in big nation after big nation. At 38 percent, Bush's recent approval rating strikes me as surprisingly high, given the self-inflicted wounds he and his administration sport. And Britain's Tony Blair, the United Nations' Kofi Annan, Japan's Junichiro Koizumi and other once-dominant leaders have entered the twilight land inhabited by lame ducks.

Hu has to be especially concerned about shaky legitimacy. A communist leadership that has abandoned Marxism and has no personal link to Mao's revolutionary struggle is condemned to depend on delivering economic growth of 8 to 10 percent a year to justify its monopoly on political power. Financial crisis is a sword suspended over Hu's head, too. That gives Bush a great deal of leverage in seeking a new, realistic balance of restraint with Beijing.

In any event, mutual restraint does not mean mutual acceptance today any more than it did in the days of Soviet-U.S. rivalry. China's continuing massive human rights abuses and opposition to democracy, its shortsighted reluctance to join in pressing Iran and North Korea on their nuclear programs, and its still flagrant disregard of intellectual property rights are issues that Bush should press on their own merit. Those issues also drive home Zoellick's point about the need for China to accept more responsibility for national and global stability as it covets and accumulates more resources and power.

China's new form of power is real. But it is also more fragile than Hu will want to show here this week. That is a reality that neither Hu nor Bush can afford to neglect at the summit.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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