Why Dissing China Ought Not to Become An American Sport


James Fallows crossed swords with Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt earlier this week in a short essay charghing Hiatt and his co-editors with recklessness in their reporting both about China recently and about Iraq before the invasion.
I agree with Fallows that:

The tone of the Post‘s editorials was not the major factor, but was a factor, in cowing people in DC who might have objected to the rush to war [with Iraq].
I’ve got nothing against Hiatt personally, whom I like; but I do have something against his page’s pro-war tone in those days. I mention it because, again, I think there is a similarity in the “don’t bother me with details, goddammit” tone.

Being against the Iraq War did not require one to be a pacifist. It was reckless on a great number of levels — including one consequence that we are dealing with today. Throwing off the equilibrium between Iraq and Iran meant that Iran’s pretensions would grow in the region once Saddam’s power structure was toppled.
Fallows goes after Hiatt because of this statement, what Fallows terms a “hollow threat”, from a Hiatt authored oped titled “What We Owe the Burmese“:

And here’s something else I would do: Tell China that, as far as the United States is concerned, it can have its Olympic Games or it can have its regime in Burma. It can’t have both.

In a show I did with him on CNN’s Crossfire, Richard Perle in unison with numerous neoconservatives offered the same prescription of taking away China’s hopes of hosting the Olympic Games in April 2001 after the US-China EP-3 spy plane incident.
Boycotting the Olympics today or trying to preempt China’s hosting the games as Perle suggested in 2001 are hollow threats that perpetuate the mistaken notion that America is in a serious position to isolate China.
It is China that is “out multilateral-ing” the United States today. As we have been distracted in Iraq, China has rolled out aid and development programs globally, helped institute yet another Asian multilateral effort in its “East Asian Community” initiative, launched a multilateral security organization in the “Shanghai Cooperation Organization”, and was the key factor in the recent negotiating successes with North Korea over its nuclear program. As State Department Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and chief negotiator with North Korea Christopher Hill has said, “China has become the first stop for any American diplomacy.”
While much of the world perceives — at best — America as a status quo power but more realistically as a superpower in decline that will eventually look something like a well-endowed military state and more as an ordinary great power — that same world looks at China as an ascending power. China’s weight gains in global affairs matters.
Fred Hiatt and other commentators inflate America’s ability to kick China this way and that. If anything, China is demonstrating an interest in playing more of the “stakeholder” like role former Deputy Secretary of State and current World Bank President Robert Zoellick described a few years ago.
But that does not mean that China will simply be America’s puppet and will solve all of the problems we see in Burma, Darfur, and other parts of the globe because we have pressured it into doing so. China is a shrewd calculator of its interests. So too the United States used to be.
Today, if the key global points of instability are in Pakistan and Iran, one would think that we would try to build a collaborative set of interests with China on these fronts, discern and deliver on the key diplomatic and security objectives China might want from us, and we secure support from them. To the degree that the Darfur Crisis and the showdown in Burma weigh in to these factors, all the better — but they are not the forefront of America’s current security challenges today.
I very much hope that China does use influence that it can bring to bear on Sudan and the Burmese junta. But kicking China into doing it with the kind of bravado that seems divorced from the realities of America’s situation today is, like Fallows said, reminiscent of the “consequences be damned” style of those cheerleading for the invasion of Iraq.
I think that the trend of China playing a more responsible role in global affairs is strongly positive, but America has made this a pretty easy process by its absence from the economic, social and political challenges that Latin America, Africa, and South Asia have been confronting. China is active in all of these places.
My comments on China’s new global role are reflected in today’s New York Times article, “China Calling: Look Who’s Mr. Fixit in a Fraught Age” by Steven Lee Myers. Here is a section of the Myers article that includes some of my commentary:

Nevertheless, Steven Clemons of the New America Foundation, a bipartisan research organization in Washington, said that while some Americans express frustration at what they see as Chinese unwillingness to press Iran, China has already played an active role in trying to resolve tensions that could lead to another military conflict in the Persian Gulf.
He credited what he said were quiet Chinese efforts to win the release of four Iranian-Americans jailed by the authorities in Iran this summer.
With the North Koreans, China’s support proved more crucial than anything else. China, which for decades acted as North Korea’s protector, responded to the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s nuclear test last year by cutting off military aid and joining the Bush administration’s efforts to choke off the country’s bank accounts abroad.
A senior administration official said in an interview that China’s diplomatic push began even before the test, after Mr. Bush assured President Hu Jintao that he wanted a peaceful resolution with North Korea during an outwardly disastrous White House visit in April 2006 in which a protester infiltrated their joint news conference.
Mr. Hu dispatched State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan that week for unannounced talks in North Korea that, after some ups and downs, laid the foundation for last week’s deal, the official said. “What changed was not them,” the official said of the North Koreans, “but the Chinese attitude.”
China, by virtue of its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, has always been an important diplomatic player. But its importance to the Bush administration has grown for two reasons: it has become more assertive around the globe and the administration has exhausted a lot of its options.
“I think we need China almost everywhere in the world because we’ve disengaged from the rest of the world,” Mr. Clemons said, criticizing the administration’s initial disdain for concerted international diplomacy and citing its preoccupation with Iraq.
Meanwhile, China has steadily expanded its diplomatic and economic ties far beyond Asia. Mr. Clemons suggested that that has caused a subtle tectonic shift in how nations view it and, conversely, the United States. “They see China as an ascending power,” Mr. Clemons added, “and they don’t see us that way any more.”

Finally, I want to share the interesting revelation that Conde Nast Portfolio Washington Bureau Chief Matt Cooper made on his blog some time ago. He went to Uruguay to speak on “journalistic ethics” at a meeting organized by the Organization of American States (OAS).
He stated that there were no American government officials in attendance — at all. The Open Society Institute folks were there — and so were the Chinese. In fact, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs helped finance the conference along with George Soros.
America is not solidly engaged in world problems. And frankly, just a serious and steady new commitment to global engagement will go pretty far in getting America somewhat back in the world’s good graces. But we can’t bounce back completely because the world has moved on — and nations like China aren’t just going to forgo the gains they’ve made globally.
So, folks can pine on about America boycotting the 2008 Olympics — or they can get back to the “serious” problem that America isn’t taken all that seriously anymore, and China is.
— Steve Clemons


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