Earlier this year when President Hu of China came to the US, Washington was a buzz in talk of declinism. China in the relatively near future could overtake the US as having the world’s largest economy, which according to the declinist meme, would make China more powerful than the US (no matter that the EU, which operates as a single economic entity in global affairs is bigger than the US). Yet the events of the last few months in the Middle East should throw some cold water on the notion that China is a few more good years of economic growth away from being a new global hegemon. China’s problem is that no one really cares what it has to say.
Okay, people of course care what China says. But on issues and events that don’t have a direct connection to China, the world doesn’t seem to care very much. The events in the Middle East seem to demonstrate this. Over the last couple of months, the world has been closely following every murmur out of the US government. Whether from President Obama, Secretary Clinton, or even State Department spokesman PJ Crowley, every word receives a ton of coverage and is heavily analyzed and scrutinized not just in the US, but around the world. An almost ubiquitous conversation topic in the global media has been the timing of Obama administration statements — should they have come sooner, has the Administration been too cautious, etc, etc. These statements are scrutinized because they matter.
Yet few in the global media are anxiously waiting for the comments from the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman. When it comes to big global political events in which China is not directly involved, no one seems to care what it has to say. The world looks to Washington, not to Beijing.
This is not because the size of our economy vis-a-vis China, it is because Washington has something that China doesn’t — a ton of like minded allies. And with our network of alliances and allies, we have helped build something of an international order. This order is incomplete, often weak, we often do stupid things to weaken it (coalition of the willing anyone?), and we are by no means all powerful in dictating what other countries do. But when push comes to shove, countries in Europe, South America, Africa, and much of Asia are strongly committed to maintaining it and sometimes strengthening it. Therefore, when there is upheaval in the world, we are looked to for direction and our words matter.
China doesn’t have an international system it is pushing, it has China. And it is pretty hard to develop a new alternative international order in an age of nationalism, liberalism, and democracy whose sole function is to benefit the mothership power. China is developing and expanding its relations with other countries and building somewhat of a network of associates. But these are largely transactional relationships. A vivid example of the nature of China’s priorities was evident in the evacuation of Chinese oil workers from Libya. China was in Libya because it could get oil, but in Egypt, where resources are scarce, China was relatively absent. For the US the situation was reversed. We had close ties with Egypt and paid it billions, despite it being resource poor, because Egypt is critical to regional stability and peace.
The lesson here is that if the goal is to maintain our global leadership role vis-a-vis China, we should seek in every foreign policy action we take to strengthen, not weaken, the existing international order. Additionally, as Matt Yglesias argued, we should scrap the whole G-2 premise and should generally deemphasize bilateral summitry with China. Why endorse the premise that China is on equal footing with the United States? China is relatively isolated globally. While we have a large democratic posse, other big countries in China’s neighborhood, Russia, India, and Japan, all have pretty adversarial relationships with the Chinese.
When we interact with China at a senior level it should be in as multilateral a setting as possible. Much of what we seek to achieve in our summitry with China is to get them to adhere more closely to the rules of the international order. These calls would have more weight if they came not just from US but from our allies as well. Working with allies can by annoying, but our ability to do so, is our great long term advantage.