China Week: A Look Back to Look Ahead

February 13, 2012

This is a big China week.

Vice President Xi Jinping is visiting Washington and conferring with President Obama and other top officials about the increasingly unsteady relationship between the two countries. Nothing dramatic is expected, but a large question mark hangs over their deliberations. Will they be able to decelerate a deepening confrontation that may, in coming years, trigger a dangerous spin in their relations? Or, might both leaders look back forty years and learn a lesson from a former president, Richard Nixon?

Everyone knew that when Nixon opened a weeklong visit to China on February 17, 1972—“a week,” he said, “that changed the world”–he had been one of China’s severest critics for decades, believing that “it would be disastrous to the cause of freedom” if the United States “recognized” China. But, during the Vietnam War, when he needed China as leverage against both Hanoi and Moscow, he did more than drop his opposition to the recognition of China; he actually went to China, negotiated with revolutionary leader Mao Tse-tung and dramatically improved relations between the two countries.

There are obviously problems now between the United States and China, but there is no objective reason for an ugly, bitter confrontation—not when each great power needs the other to advance its own national agenda. One problem is the “trust deficit” in their relationship. Many in Washington who should know better are expounding the view that China’s rise as a great power is, by definition, a direct threat to the United States. That when China increases its military strength or its trade with Africa or its oil imports from Iran or proclaims the South China Sea to be within its sphere of influence, it is challenging the United States to a duel at dawn.

There is another view, fortunately. China is growing up, flexing its economic muscles and improving its military position. In a brief time, China has risen from centuries of insecurity and backwardness. Now the big question for everyone: can China continue to expand its global power and influence and still live within the tight constraints of a political dictatorship attached to a discredited communist ideology? Some of the experts say yes, others say no, but they all agree that no one really knows.

For a clue, check the newspapers and informed blogs. The stories from and about China resemble those we used to read about the old Soviet Union. Beijingology has now replaced Kremlinology. Whose face appears more prominently in the Chinese media? Answer: Vice President Xi Jinping’s. Meaning, therefore, that he is the new boss, soon to be named president. What kind of boss? What kind of adversary? Answer: he smiles a lot. He can speak without a script. He once visited the United States. Years ago, students of the Soviet hierarchy spent hours and hours discussing and dissecting the “clue” that the KGB’s Yuri Andropov enjoyed a good shot of scotch whiskey, and we took that to mean he was more Western-oriented than his political opponents, more agreeable, it seemed, to further East-West détente. It took a Soviet leader named Gorbachev who drank neither scotch nor vodka to open the Kremlin’s windows to the winds of change. Maybe the visiting Chinese Vice-President Xi is that man for China, maybe not.

What an unemotional look at China and the United States suggests at the moment is that both countries could use a time-out from their current obsession with distrust and focus instead on a new, fresh approach to mutual accommodation, starting with educational exchanges, expanded trade and rising then to serious, detailed negotiations about what each country truly needs and what it can compromise to advance a common commitment to a safer, more secure world.

Welcome, Mr. Xi. Enjoy your stay in Washington.