US-China summit: a lesson in parenting


BOSTON — When the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 economies sit down together in Washington this week, they will find themselves in a relationship that is as complicated and intertwined as that of an obstreperous teenager and an aging and impatient parent.

The United States is constantly scolding China to pick up its room and behave like an adult. “If Beijing wants to be treated like an equal, it should act like one,” said the Wall Street Journal on the eve of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit.

China’s new found clout in the world “was gained in substantial part from a free-trading global economic order secured by American military might and underwritten by American dollars,” admonishes the Journal, “China need no longer be a free rider in this system.”

This sounds a bit like,' Look at everything I have done for you, now grow up and show some gratitude and respect, and start earning your keep.' But the teenager is ever sensitive to condescension and eager for respect. The teenager doesn't want to be treated as a child, even though he doesn’t feel quite ready for the grown up world. This leads to truculence.

China may have passed Japan as the world’s second largest economy in total, but the average Chinese earns only a tiny fraction of what the average Japanese or American earns, and the Chinese still see themselves as emerging from economic childhood and deserving of some forbearance and understanding from the more developed world.

As Communist ideology faded, Chinese nationalism rose to take its place, and Chinese governments have played up that nationalism to gain legitimacy. Nationalism tends to wallow in past grievances. Thus the unequal treaties, the extraterritoriality, the treatment at the hands of the Western powers in the 19th century and from Japan in the 20th is dredged up like recovered memory of child abuse.

Some Westerners worry that China is behaving like the Kaiser’s Germany before World War I, seeking to dominate and bully its neighbors and engaging in a naval arms race with the world’s No. 1, which was then Great Britain. It is argued that China is a continental power, as the Kaiser’s Germany was, but that Britain then, and America now, depend on sea power.

It was never really true in either case. Germany was eventually brought to the brink of starvation by a British naval blockade, and China is more than ever dependent on its sea lanes for energy supplies.

But if China is not yet able to project power far from its borders, it is determined to dominate the waters of the China seas, and this has led to bullying of neighbors over specks of islands, and a determination to be able to deny United States unchallenged control of China’s coastal waters.

Americans fear that the goal is to make Taiwan vulnerable to an attack from the mainland, and they are not all wrong. China sees Taiwan as a break-away province, and although it does not plan to re-integrate Taiwan by force anytime soon, it doesn’t want the United States to be able to forever keep the keys of that particular car, if I may stretch the teenage analogy.

When former U.S. President Richard Nixon and former Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong negotiated their historic turn in relationships a generation ago, it was because of mutual fear of, and antagonism towards, the Soviet Union. But Taiwan was a major issue to be bridged. The United States agreed to switch diplomatic relations from Taiwan to Mao’s China, but the U.S. Congress insisted that the U.S. maintain Taiwan’s ability to defend itself. This has caused difficulties in the U.S.–China relationship ever since. The U.S. side promised not to ratchet up the quality and quantity of arms to Taiwan, but to the Chinese — and some Americans too — the subsequent sending of F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan was a clear violation of that agreement.

Originally, in the wake of Sino-U.S. rapprochement, China had requested that the U.S. give it access to advance radars and electronic guidance systems so that it could develop sophisticated fighter plans to match the Soviet MIG-23, which the Vietnamese had been given. The Americans refused.

In the long memories of the Chinese, slights are remembered that the U.S. has forgotten. This might help to explain why the Chinese military chose to test its new, modern stealth fighter on the eve of Hu’s talks with Sec. of Defense Robert Gates.

Both Hu and Obama have to worry about their respective hawks, for while China wants its place in the sun and to be recognized, there are Americans who resent and fear America’s relative decline. As Henry Kissinger, who was so responsible for opening up a new relationship with an old enemy recently wrote: both leaders “face an opinion among elites in their countries emphasizing conflict rather than cooperation.”

China sees a U.S. effort to contain its rise, and the U.S. sees what it considers irresponsible behavior.

But as Kissinger has wisely pointed out in the pages of the Washington Post, “America has found most problems it recognized as soluble. China, in its history of millennia, came to believe that few problems have ultimate solutions. America has a problem-solving approach; China is comfortable managing contradictions without assuming they are resolvable …”

“American negotiators become restless and impatient with deadlocks; Chinese negotiators consider them the inevitable mechanism of negotiations.” Both countries put too much emphasis on their national “exceptionalism.”

Hopefully, as China grows, it will see the international systems that allow it to mature and prosper as requiring responsibilities. But Americans need to reign in the instinct to play the hectoring parent, to keep saying, as the old song put it, “Put in the dog, and put out the cat. Don’t talk back.”