Last Updated: Sun Jul 17, 2011 22:46 pm (KSA) 19:46 pm (GMT)

Michael Brenner: Sharing chopsticks

US President Barack Obama, left, and Chinese President Hu Jintao. (File Photo)
US President Barack Obama, left, and Chinese President Hu Jintao. (File Photo)

The uneasy Sino-American relationship is punctuated by frequent exchange visits between senior officials. Defense, finance, trade, communications – all are evoked at the highest level. These meetings are marked by courtesy leavened by increasing candor in the expression of differing views on the prime issues that former their bilateral diplomatic agenda.

The communiqués that issue from these discussions are anodyne documents that offer few clues as to the rue tenor of the two countries’ dealings with each other. The adage “actions speaks louder than words” can be amended to “thoughts count more than words” when it comes to serious diplomacy.

Frankly, whatever is written into a Sino-American communiqué or a “Declaration of Principles” means little in itself. It is the understandings between the two leaders that is of the utmost importance. That is to say, agreed understandings as to how they view the shape and structure of world affairs, where their interests clash or converge, and how to meet the dual challenge of 1) handling those points of friction that may arise, and 2) working together to perform “system maintenance” functions in both the economic and security realms.

The leadership in Beijing is increasingly inclined to assert itself in a manner consonant with its newfound strength and the shifting of weights in the balance of Sino-American relations. They do not hesitate to chastise Washington for feckless management of America’s fraught financial affairs, and do so as its largest creditor, which holds roughly $1.3 trillion in Treasury debt.

Beijing has successfully claimed the position of Deputy Director of the IMF for a Chinese. High-level officials are also being more assertive in declaring that the maritime disputes in the energy rich South China Sea are none of the United States’ business. At the same time, they follow their own path on Iran where China continues to conduct its own self interested energy policy.

The one matter on which the Chinese leadership has been reticent has been the structure of the international system. Its current design reflects Western – mainly American –conceptions and interests. Beijing clearly wants and expects modifications. But they remain unspecified – as does the nature of any future concert between the two great powers.

The United States, as the status quo power, wants as little change as possible. What is possible, and strategies for perpetuating the status quo, are the compelling questions for Washington. Yet it shows little readiness to engage in this exercise or to broach serious discussions with Beijing about the shape of world affairs. The American world view is still framed by post-Cold War triumphalism. Its mind has been fixed on the policies for maintaining or extending American dominance. That is why it has committed itself to a military doctrine of dominance at all levels in all regions – the “full spectrum superiority” concept. That is why it is building a base network across Southwestern and Central Asia while working feverishly to suppress any forces hostile to us.

In truth, American leaders are psychologically and intellectually not ready to think seriously about the terms for sharing power with China and developing mechanisms for doing so over different time frames. Washington is too preoccupied with parsing the naval balance in East Asia to reflect on broad strategies. Its leaders are too complacent about the deep faults in our economic structures, and too wasteful in dissipating trillions on chimerical ventures aimed at exorcising a mythical enemy to position ourselves for a diplomatic undertaking of the sort that a self-centered America has never before faced.

Beijing leaders must be shocked by the accelerated pace of United States’ relative decline. They too may be unprepared for addressing the consequences. China’s traditional goal always has been to exact deference from other countries while bolstering their own strength -- not to impose an imperium on them. Much less do they share the American impulse to arrange the affairs of the entire world according to a universalization of their own unique civilization.

Therein lies an opportunity to avoid a “war of transition.” However, I don’t see anyone in the Obama administration -- or for that matter many outside it -- appreciating this overarching reality.

Instead, we see a mode of address that is the near antithesis to the kind of exchange between (near) equals that is best suited to fostering a healthy working relationship. Last month, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton devoted most of her speech on Sino-American relations to the prodding, hectoring and instructing that has become Washington’s standard voice in addressing other governments.

A similarly cajoling attitude was struck by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner who waxes indignant on a regular basis at Beijing’s resistance to complying with our demands as to how they should amend their economic policies.

In short, the Obama people are willing to work with the Chinese leaders so long as they accept Washington’s strictures – on the exchange rate, on Iran, etc.

Part of our difficulty in making necessary changes of attitude and behavior is that we operate on the premise that there has to be a Number 1, a king of the hill, someone at the top of the sports ratings. If that is taken as the natural order of things global, then it makes sense to hold onto the top slot many Americans believe is ours by Divine right using all means and no matter what. If we reject that idea, a plethora of opportunities beyond the “it’s us or them” mentality present themselves.

What is noteworthy is less the position the United States strikes on this or that issue than the smug superiority that creeps into nearly all its communications with others. That is now a major liability in conducting diplomacy. America’s ingrained sense of superiority is rooted in both recent circumstances (the sole superpower/unilateral moment) and our enduring national self-image as the as the exalted nation destined to show the world the path of virtuous truth.

It has been confirmed over the years by the routine deference it has received from so many countries. The deference is not as universal or automatic as it used to be, but Washington doesn’t acknowledge that shift or the profound implications. In “The Planet Of The Apes,” the critical moment comes when the legendary simian hero first says “No” to his masters. That ushers in the epochal role reversal whereby the formerly servile apes and orangutans turn the tables on humans.

Nothing so dramatic is in the offing for the United States. The true stake is the terms of engagement in a power and authority sharing world. We are deaf to Brazil’s Lula saying “No,” to Turkey’s Erdogan, to Iraq’s Maliki, to Afghanistan’s Karzai, to Pakistan’s Musharraf and Kayani, to Vladimir Putin’s routine “No’s,” and of course to the Chinese leadership. America had better take note that indeed the times are a changin’ lest it wind up worse off than it need to be. Then Americans would be chumps.

(Professor Michael Brenner teaches at the University of Texas, Austin, and at the University of Pittsburgh. He can be reached at:

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