Steven Mufson covers the White House for The Washington Post. He was The Post’s Beijing correspondent from 1994 to 1998.
Maybe there are two indispensable nations.
“Indispensable” is a word most often reserved for the United States. Discussing the possibility of using force against Iraq in February 1998, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation.”
Now, however, while America still possesses unparalleled military superiority and bears a unique burden in intervening in foreign conflicts or humanitarian crises, China has grown into an indispensable nation on issues such as climate change, trade, and peace and stability in the Asian Pacific.
Nothing displays that better than the climate pacts announced this past week after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and bilateral meetings between China’s President Xi Jinping and President Obama. To save the world from catastrophic climate change or to press ahead with broad trade agreements, China — the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, and the world’s largest or second-largest economy, depending on the method of measurement — must play an active part.
But how will China play that role? No matter how much the United States urges China to take on new responsibilities, Washington still views China’s leadership with some unease. And China returns the favor.
For decades, the United States — regardless of which party or president has been in power — has tried to channel China into the safe, bland, bureaucratic uniformity of existing international institutions: the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and the U.N. Security Council.
The idea was that as China played a larger role in such institutions, it would come to abide by the international rules of the road, whether that meant safeguarding intellectual property, preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons or providing humanitarian aid in emergencies such as the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, to which China has vowed to send 1,000 of its troops. And just maybe, China would also come to respect human rights.
“China is big, it is growing, and it will influence the world in the years ahead,” Robert Zoellick, then deputy secretary of state, told the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations in New York in September 2005. “For the United States and the world, the essential question is: How will China use its influence? To answer that question, it is time to take our policy beyond opening doors to China’s membership into the international system: We need to urge China to become a responsible stakeholder in that system.”
At the time, in an inward-looking China, the idea of being a responsible stakeholder was a foreign one — and Chinese interpreters weren’t even sure how to translate it.
Both Obama and Xi at their joint news conference Wednesday proclaimed a triumph for their vision of a brighter diplomatic future, what Xi called “a new model of major-country relations between China and the United States.” But there’s nothing new about it — and it’s a model that the United States and China view with suspicion.
The United States wants China’s support on fighting climate change, lowering trade barriers, and pressuring Iran to open up and limit its nuclear program. Indeed, overshadowed by the climate pledges, China and the United States agreed to lower 200 tariffs on $1 trillion worth of technology products such as semiconductors and medical scanning devices. Other countries have long been ready to strike such a deal, but China had been holding out. If approved at the WTO, it will be the most important trade deal in 17 years.
“China was the indispensable party for that agreement, and now they’re on board,” said a senior executive of one of the world’s biggest technology companies.
But the United States is wary of China playing a bigger role in setting international rules, whether at the IMF or at the international group that manages Internet domain names.
The United States is also worried about China’s modernizing military. The Wall Street Journal recently published a story about the voyage of a Chinese nuclear submarine through the busy Strait of Malacca between Indonesia and Malaysia and on to the Persian Gulf — the first known journey of a Chinese sub to the Indian Ocean. Fewer and fewer oil shipments from the Persian Gulf go to the United States, and more and more go to China, but providing security there has long been an American project and one the United States has no interest in sharing with Beijing.
The new Chinese military equipment is “designed to restrict U.S. freedom of action throughout the Western Pacific,” said Larry M. Wortzel , a former Army attache in Beijing, a former vice president at the Heritage Foundation and now a member of the congressionally mandated U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. He told a House committee that “rising unease” over China’s intentions and abilities was driving U.S. allies in Asia to bolster their own militaries and strengthen their security cooperation.
For their part, Chinese leaders remain conscious of lopsided treaties that Western powers imposed a century ago and are wary of whose interests are served by international institutions. As a result, Beijing manages to assert China’s greatness and its place at the center of the world’s elite powers while feeling like an insecure outsider banging on the door of the club.
China’s concerns aren’t surprising. At the IMF, China has only a 3.81 percent voting share. That is smaller than France’s share, even though the French economy is less than a third the size of China’s. Chinese officials have told U.S. academics that they feel that Obama has not gone to the mat with European allies or Congress for changes in IMF voting rights. GOP control of Congress could pose an even bigger obstacle to such changes. The stalemate suits European allies, whose voting share far outstrips their economic might.
In addition, the United States has been drumming up support for its own regional trade group — the Trans-Pacific Partnership , which Congress might give Obama authority to conclude. So China has been pushing to negotiate a separate Asian trade pact with other nations.
One danger is that China will launch its own multilateral institutions. It is already recruiting nations to join a Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, to which it would give $50 billion to launch. The bank would be headed by a savvy, experienced Chinese banker, Jin Liqun, ex-chairman of investment bank China International Capital Corp., who has invited the United States to join. Instead, Washington has been urging other nations not to join because the new bank still lacks clear governance rules, including ones regarding the environment and human rights.
The United States also sees the new China-dominated infrastructure bank as a challenge to the World Bank and the Manila-based Asian Development Bank, which has made investments throughout the region in infrastructure, health care, public administration and adaptation steps for climate change.
“I think the world is looking increasingly to China to abide by the international rules of the road that have supported its growth over the past 25 years,” Carolyn Atkinson, the White House deputy national security adviser for international economics, said at a Brookings Institution meeting before the summit.
But when China reaches out, it has tended to reach out to countries such as Russia and Venezuela, or regions such as Africa and Southeast Asia, that can feed its appetite for raw materials — not unlike Western powers in earlier times. And when it comes to the United States, China has waged a vigorous cyber-espionage campaign designed not only for national security but to steal corporate secrets and give its enterprises an advantage.
And where its direct interests are not at stake, China has chosen to be a bystander. In July 2012, when a Western-backed resolution threatening to slap sanctions on Syria came to the U.N. Security Council, China joined with Russia to veto the measure, leaving American officials fuming.
Even if Beijing plays by international rules, the nature of the Chinese Communist Party makes it hard for China to be a genuine partner for the United States the way European nations are. An awkward moment at the announcement of the climate measures, when a New York Times reporter’s question to China’s president was first ignored then perfunctorily dismissed, symbolized this difficulty. China did not want to allow any questions at the ceremony, White House officials said, but the Obama administration insisted on allowing two.
There is also something challenging about urging China to abide by an international legal system when its view of law is so different from ours. Xi has been waging an anti-corruption campaign , toppling senior officials who have broken laws, but what’s really broken is the Chinese legal system, which does not protect civil liberties or freedom for people to criticize the party.
Obama made scant mention of human rights this past week, and luckily for him the massive demonstrations in Hong Kong to protest limitations on the choice of a new chief executive in 2017 had largely subsided before the APEC summit. Back on Oct. 1, a few weeks after the demonstrations began, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement saying that “we have high hopes that the Hong Kong authorities will exercise restraint and respect for the protestors’ right to express their views peacefully,” but he did not endorse the demonstrators’ demands that anyone be allowed to run for chief executive in 2017.
Those demonstrators, apparently, were dispensable.