China on Our Minds

President Hu's visit to Washington prompts speculation on a growing Cold War.

Chinese President Hu Jintao is due to arrive in Washington on Tuesday evening, to start a three-day official visit to the United States. All reports coming out of Washington, D.C. suggest this visit is amongst the most highly anticipated in years. And no wonder: The United States is committed to two ongoing wars and is still attempting to sustain even a modest economic recovery. China has enjoyed solidly robust economic growth for years and is rapidly expanding its enormous military’s technological capabilities, as well as its geopolitical reach.

In short, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, the United States will be forced to deal with another country as something approaching an equal, while being mindful of the dispiriting possibility that at a similar meeting not too far in the future, it may well be the United States, the leader of the Western Free World, that is the junior partner in the Sino-American relationship. Many words have been written ahead of the summit, and still more will be penned when it’s over. Even so, it is worth briefly reflecting on the current state of the relationship, as well as the worrying evidence that President Hu might be rather more a figurehead than a leader.

By the standards of recent history, the United States and China get along fairly well. There is none of the brinksmanship, with the attendant risk of nuclear war, that was the cornerstone of Soviet-American relations for 40 years. This is not to deny that there are flashpoints in the relationship, merely to point out that areas of disagreement between the two nations do not pose the risk of rapid escalation to mutual genocide. Unlike the Soviets, China does not as yet demonstrate any sign of having global imperial ambitions, and seems content to adapt capitalism to its own needs, rather than battling against it in an inevitably futile struggle.

Indeed, it is China's willingness to use capitalism, with surprising effectiveness, that leads to many of the regime's clashes with the United States. Over the last 20 years, China has become the assembly line of the entire world, manufacturing items of every description and exporting them to Western markets for prices that businesses in the importing countries cannot hope to compete with. They have used the influx of cash obtained through these sales to purchase enormous quantities of American debt bonds, creating a closed circuit wherein America gives China the money China uses to buy American debt.

As China’s economic might has grown, however, it has refused to open its markets to Western goods, has kept its currency artificially low (to make Chinese exports even stronger) and has shamelessly appropriated Western patents and other forms of intellectual property for its own domestic use while paying little or no compensation. Even while it has sought to join Western-oriented organizations such as the World Trade Organization and the Group of 20 leading nations, it has refused to play by the same rules that effectively govern trade in North America, Europe and the rest of the developed world.

It’s not hard to see why. For two decades now, the citizens of the West have been partaking in a debt-fueled orgy of spending, and only a country with pockets as deep as China could possibly loan them enough money to keep the party going. Western diplomats might have made noises about China’s unbalanced trading practices, but there was no incentive for them to rock the boat. Now that the financial crisis of 2008 has brought the party to a close, the West is shaking off its fiscal hangover only to notice that not only has China bought up enormous quantities of American debt, it has also turned itself into a manufacturing giant and helped itself to enough Western know-how to be rapidly narrowing the technology gap. One can criticize the Chinese actions while still admiring their cunning. The West lent them the money they needed to compete with us on more equal terms.

China’s booming economy and increasing leverage over Western governments has enabled it to rapidly modernize its armed forces and expand its reach. China has long fielded a massive conventional military and a small but potent force of nuclear-armed ICBMs capable of hitting North America. In recent years, however, it has begun to produce respectable fighter jets domestically (while still relying on imports of technology from Russia for certain systems), has begun to modernize its navy to include the ability to operate far from Chinese ports (such as sending ships to fight piracy off Somalia), has designed effective cruise missiles and exported them around the world to such states as Iran, and has of late been perfecting missiles and sensor systems that could be used to suddenly strike at military assets in the Western Pacific.

American officials are particularly concerned about China’s development of a so-called carrier-killer, a missile capable of accurately seeking out and destroying an aircraft carrier at a range of, reportedly, over 900 miles. If China put such a weapon into service, the entire U.S. force projection strategy of using carrier-based aircraft to establish air superiority, bomb high-value enemy targets and, if necessary, support a ground invasion, would be obsolete. China would have near total freedom of action in the Western Pacific, and could threaten U.S. allies South Korea, Japan and Australia while America’s primary strike weapon stayed away from danger.

But China can be a threat to U.S. interests even without waging war on it. China has exported missiles and missile technology to Iran, which has in turn dispersed it to its terrorist allies in Hamas and Hezbollah, making life unpleasant for U.S.-ally Israel. It continues to offer diplomatic and political support to the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-il, a regime that has recently shown serious signs of destabilizing, putting the Korean peninsula on the brink of war. No U.S.-South Korean counter-offensive in response to a North Korean attack could afford to ignore the risk of provoking a Chinese reaction, and the North Koreans — knowing this — can afford to behave irresponsibly.

China’s growing power and muscular foreign policy are not necessarily cause for alarm. China has so far shown that it is a serious, pragmatic power, unlikely to act rashly. But there is the issue of whether or not President Hu is truly in firm control of the country. It has been speculated that rather than being a true leader, Hu is more a central figure linking together the various factions of the Chinese government — massive corporations, powerful government ministries, the military, etc. If so, this might explain why agreements entered into by Hu and China’s foreign affairs apparatus are implemented slowly, if at all.

It might also explain why Hu seemed taken aback recently when his own military tested a fifth-generation stealth warplane on the first day of U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ trip to the country — the military might not have told him. If so, that is worrying, especially given that some members of the Chinese military are far more hawkish regarding China’s relationship with America than Hu has been.

Hu is said to be due for retirement next year, perhaps the next leader to emerge — widely expected to be of a younger generation — will be in firmer control of his country. Until then, America should continue to focus on economic recovery, on redeveloping its manufacturing sector and reining in the deficits that China continues to largely finance. While many Americans are understandably alarmed by China’s rapid rise, they should rest assured that China’s ascendancy in military might is only enough to bring it equal to America’s power in the Western Pacific, and that China’s own steps to get rich off America has left it as dependent on the American economy as America is on it. While a United States beholden to any nation is far from ideal, at least the country can move forward knowing that with China needing America as much as the U.S. needs China, the race for 21st century dominance is perhaps starting off on more equal footing.

Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on . Follow him on Twitter: @mattgurney.