China has been in the news lately and most likely will remain a major foreign policy concern of the United States for many years whether seen in a positive light or not. Hopefully our relations will be cordial; however, our interests may not always be aligned. Some amount of conflict is most likely inevitable given our economic interests and forms of government. Nonetheless, minimizing those conflicts is in our interest and theirs.
Without looking at a map it’s really hard to comprehend the size of China. The U.S. State Department website has lots of interesting facts and figures. With a land mass of about 3.7 million square miles and a population of more than 1.3 billion, the word “big” just does not do the country justice. There are a lot of people in China. When they were teenagers, my children would have said “Duh” right about now. Size alone makes China a major player in Asian affairs at least, if not the world. I’d grant major world player status myself.
China’s economy continues to grow faster than most countries’ economies. China also is one of several, and in fact the largest, holder of U.S. debt. I don’t like that, but not just because China is financing us. I don’t like any foreign nation loaning us money because there is always the possibility of those financial connections driving an important decision that in the long term may not be best for us or the world. So China is by no means the only problem in this regard. Our appetite to spend money needs to go on a diet with regard to all foreign nation financial support, not China alone. Even though I am concerned about our debt I also wonder where the point would be that any damage or influence on our economy actually might work against the nations loaning us money. After all, if our ability to pay off the loans collapsed, the lenders also would lose their money. In that sense it is best for the lending nations that economically we become healthy.
I thought several interesting stories popped up during the visit to our country by Chinese President Hu Jintao. President Hu seemed to dodge questions about human rights abuses when initially asked. Some of that may have been translation problems, but with China’s history of abusive behavior toward its citizens I imagine that was an issue President Hu hoped to avoid discussing in any meaningful way. China flew its new stealth technology J-20 aircraft when our Secretary of Defense Gates visited them immediately before Hu’s visit to the United States. There was a great deal of speculation regarding the true capabilities of the new airplane in comparison to our aircraft. Export of the technology clearly is an issue. We may never know or at least not know soon whether their aircraft truly has stealth capability like our aircraft. Another military technology story that I saw little coverage concerning was the Chinese aircraft carrier nearing completion. China purchased the ship from the Ukraine and has been refitting it to meet their needs. A Chinese-flagged aircraft carrier cruising around the Pacific will certainly change the strategic calculus for us and many Asian nations.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made one of the more interesting comments during President Hu’s visit. Calling the Chinese president a dictator on television certainly seemed to stir the emotional pot of several commentators. I think surprise may have been the principal reason so many people reacted as they did. Having a senior member of the Democratic Party say something derogatory about a visiting head of state was unexpected. Of course, that also was a truthful moment for Senator Reid because he was correct. President Hu is a dictator. The Chinese Communist Party runs the Chinese government. I don’t see democracy springing forth any time soon. The People’s Congress may have elected President Hu, but that does not make their government a democracy. So while Harry Reid’s slip of the tongue might have embarrassed a few people, that comment was accurate.
Is China a friend or a foe? The answer is probably someplace in the middle. Maybe the best answer is competitor with the ability to help when it suits them or hurt under different conditions. Relying on them for internal needs such as loans has been necessary, but I think unwise. Seeking accommodations with them to help us when the situation allows mutually beneficial action is probably the right thing to do. However, we should also always remember that China, like most nations, will act based on its interests. Their economic potential and needs combined with a government that is not at all like ours will continue to ensure interesting times whenever we cross paths.