Saturday, January 22, 2011

China in the mind of America

Why some politicians yearn for another “Sputnik moment”, and why it wouldn’t help

WELL before the presidents of America and China sat down for dinner at the White House on the evening of January 18th, word went out from Barack Obama’s people that the very smallness of this working supper marked a new intimacy in relations.

Instead of the usual throng of hangers-on, only six diners would be present: Mr Obama and Hu Jintao, with two advisers each (in Mr Obama’s case his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and his national security adviser, Tom Donilon). This was proof, said the White House, of just how workmanlike relations had become. In two years as president Mr Obama had, after all, had seven previous face-to-face meetings with his Chinese counterpart—and he has met Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister, three times.

That, at any rate, was one of the lines being spun by the Obama administration this week. But as ever where Chinese-American relations are concerned, the messages from the summit were mixed. On the day after their intimate supper, Mr Obama said at a press conference that China’s currency was undervalued, and that he had been “very candid” with Mr Hu on human rights, but that China’s “peaceful rise” was good for the world and for America. Mr Hu said that China had more to do on human rights, but that relations should be conducted on the basis of “the principle of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs”. In a formal joint statement China welcomed America as a force for stability in the Asia-Pacific region and America welcomed a “successful China that plays a greater role in world affairs”.

Both promised more transparent military-to-military ties.

Mixed messages are the stuff of diplomacy, well understood by the leaders on each side. They are certainly nothing to be ashamed of. The inevitable rivalry between America and China is liable to be safer if it is drenched in bromides about how the two countries need not be rivals at all. “Friendly competition”, was Mr Obama’s phrase this week. But America’s politicians do not only send mixed messages to their counterparts in China. They also send mixed messages about China to Americans.

A case in point is the Obama administration’s refrain that China’s rise presents America with a new “Sputnik moment”. Mr Obama was not yet born in 1957, when the Soviet Union put the first satellite in orbit around the Earth, but the moment is remembered as a salutary shock to an America grown complacent. Fear of being left behind prompted the federal government to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on scientific and technical education and set up the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which in 1969 won the space race by plonking Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin on the surface of the moon.

Might competition from China have an equally galvanising impact on the United States? Mr Obama seems to hope so. “Our generation’s Sputnik moment is back,” he said last month: “We need to do what America has always been known for: building, innovating, educating, making things.” Steven Chu, Mr Obama’s energy secretary, has likewise invoked Sputnik to argue that China’s investment in clean sources of energy will leave America behind unless America invests in that technology too. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, complains that “We’ve sort of seen Sputnik going across the sky, but we’ve done nothing similar to what we did in the 1960s to respond to it.”

The trouble with applying the Sputnik moment to China is that it is not much of an analogy. There has, for a start, been no “moment”: China has been rising steadily for years without delivering any single shock. Whereas the Soviet Union and America built separate economic spheres, globalisation has bound the American and Chinese economies intimately together, to mutual advantage. And though China is a geopolitical competitor, it is not a mortal enemy of the United States as the Soviet Union was (unlike Nikita Khrushchev, Mr Hu has never promised to “bury” the West).

Even if it were, most Americans believe that they still have the military edge.

According to a Pew survey, Americans think by two to one (60% to 27%) that China’s economic strength is a greater threat than its military might. And a 58% majority says it is very important to build a stronger relationship with China.

A scare story for all seasons

You could argue that to invoke Sputnik is merely to say that America needs to wake up and take remedial action. But harking back to Sputnik is hardly consistent with “friendly competition”. And where is the point in stoking up fear of China if Americans cannot agree on what to do about it? It may have seemed obvious after Sputnik that America should make a big public investment in technology. No similar consensus applies today. Though Mr Obama wants to invest in clean technology, other Democrats see protectionism as the answer to China. As for the Republicans, they too point to China as a reason for America to try harder. Newt Gingrich, one of their presidential possible wannabes, calls the possibility of America falling behind China in technology one of the “potentially catastrophic threats” facing the country. But his remedies emphasise tax cuts, a smaller state and freer markets, not the public investments Democrats favour.

It is not hard to see why the Sputnik era appeals to Mr Obama. For all the talk they hear about China’s headlong investment in infrastructure, American voters are lukewarm about their own government’s spending, especially if debt or taxes must rise to pay for it. A new Sputnik moment might change their minds. But in the 1960s Americans were sure their system could deliver the goods. Today they are perplexed by the success of China’s model and divided on how, if it is even possible, to restore the health of their own. They should resolve that quarrel on its merits and keep the China scare out of it. Apart from anything else, that might improve the atmosphere at the next presidential dinner. The Economist

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