by Ken Feltman
China is a big country, inhabited by many Chinese.
– Charles de Gaulle
How times have changed. China is not so inscrutable as it was when Charles de Gaulle made that statement. Now, France and all other governments throughout the developed world know a great deal about China. But not enough.
This week, China’s leader, Hu Jintao, will meet with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington amid concerns about the extent of his power. As preparation for this visit by Hu, U.S. Secretary of Defense William Gates was in Beijing last week. The visit was unsettling: Hu may not know what China’s military is doing. While Hu and Gates met, a Chinese stealth fighter jet lifted off on a test flight. Hu seemed confused when told of the test flight and asked his chief military adviser, “is it true?”
Told it was true, Hu confessed to Gates that he was unaware of the test flight. Gates later said it was probably just a bureaucratic screw up. What’s going on?
Who commands the Chinese military? Hu heads the Chinese Communist Party, which formerly signified supreme authority. A splintering of powers began with the death of Deng Xiaoping in 1997 and Hu’s power may be further diluted because he will be relinquishing his responsibilities to a chosen successor in 2012. Question: Who really runs the Chinese military?
What did Hu know and when did he know it?
What were they testing with that test flight? Can it really be that Hu did not know? Can it be that senior military officers sent the plane up to thumb their noses at Gates, at Hu or at both? Just who is in charge in China? Is it some young officers, loose cannons on deck, full of bravado, with an axe to grind, something to prove, resentful of the United States and ready for a dust up? These officers have tested Japan and other neighbors recently. Are they probing for weaknesses? Or is power in the hands of an older, cautious oligarchy headed by Hu?
China’s trading partners and neighbors will need to revisit what they really know about China. As they do so, they will start from different vantage points, of course, and for the U.S. and Europe, the vantage points may be further apart than most people assume. Those differing vantage points may make it impossible for the Trans-Atlantic partners to agree.
“If you were European….”
Europeans and Americans are separated by more than the Atlantic. We are separated by our insecurities, which cause us to behave a little bit like the adolescent boy who bounces from one hormonal surge to another. Today, the Europeans are nervous, unsettled, working to save the euro. Just when they thought they had a buyer for Greek, Irish, Spanish and Portuguese debt, the deal fell apart. Emotions plunged, only to surge when China was identified as a major purchaser of Portugal’s recent bond offering. Spain is rumored to be close to agreement with China on the sale of over $8 billion in notes. China may become Europe’s major lender.
The U.S. knows all about that. The U.S. is trying to wean itself from Chinese financing of a huge trade deficit. Will the Europeans learn from the American bad example? Perhaps not. Their comments often have a tinge of “if you were European, you would know that….” By the tone of their criticism, some take for granted that Europeans know more about the rest of the world than Americans. They may be correct. But being correct may be irrelevant.
Americans have their own brand of arrogance, of course. But in dealing with China, Americans and Europeans will be known by their weaknesses. Europeans want to be respected. Americans want to be loved. We would expect China to take advantage of other nations’ weaknesses. More important is the answer to a simple question: What does China want? If we do not know who makes the decisions, how do we answer that question?
Meantime, Europeans try to forget their euro problems and see China not as a banker but as a market. The Europeans want their share of that market.
Is The Pond drying up?
Europeans talk first about relating to China as Europeans, not as Trans-Atlantic partners with the U.S. But the Europeans want the Americans there, in the background, a security blanket, just in case. Americans simply presume that the Europeans will be with them.
This is where the different vantage points become most important: Americans often see their country as an extension of Europe. But something is changing. Europe is in America’s past, but perhaps not in America’s future. The dominance of the Trans-Atlantic alliance is ending.
As we all reassess China, nations on both sides of the Atlantic should make informed decisions. Those decisions should be about the Trans-Atlantic partnership as well as about China. Otherwise, the U.S. will reach an arm across the Pacific and another across the Atlantic while Europe reaches one arm across the Atlantic and the other across Russia toward China.
We will get ourselves bound up, what with arms reaching everywhere like two teenagers in a car parked in a darkened lane. Let’s all grow up. Fast.