Monday, November 08, 2010

Obama more “hawkish” on China than Bush?

Not particularly…

I just read Peter Beinart’s article over on The Daily Beast, and I thought I’d give my two cents on what he has to say – not least because some of the people who commented on the article are… well, let’s just say they’re “internet people” (the speed with which they devolve into right-vs-left attacks, calling each other idiots… it’s frankly depressing).

First, a look at the Bush-vs-Obama China policies, going by what Beinart mentions in his article.

  • True, Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, has been quick to berate China about its territorial incursions (something that needed to be said), which I don’t remember Bush’s administration doing overly loudly (but someone probably did, because this is nothing new). The 2010 Midterms featured a few more anti-China attacks, which is certainly understandable given the greater focus on the economy and jobs in this election.
  • The US has conducted naval exercises with Vietnam – just as most administrations have with other Asian nations in the past.
  • The nuclear deal with Vietnam is interesting. Beinart says the Obama administration “may cut a nuclear deal with Vietnam that allows it to enrich uranium outside of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty”. This would be ill-advised, in my opinion, but in what way is it more hawkish and as inflammatory as the 2008 nuclear deal Bush made with India?

As for the other issues, I don’t find them convincing enough. The author mentions that “Nancy Pelosi has long excoriated it over human rights; in 2008 she urged Bush to boycott the Beijing Olympics.” Very true, and Pelosi is someone who has cropped up frequently over the course of my PhD research. But also remember that, during the George H.W. Bush years, the Clinton years, and the George W. Bush years, the anti-China side of the political debate was extremely broad (not to mention truly bipartisan) and not at all afraid of voicing its opinion. There are many Republicans who have been staunchly anti-China for decades – some because they can’t move beyond Cold War anti-Communism, others because of China’s human rights record, and others because of a populist economic position, yet others because of the perceived threat of a strong, militaristic and nationalistic China (to name but four factions). On the Democratic side, we have economic protectionists and human rights activists (to name but two, though I can’t really come up with any others…).

Beinart does come up with an interesting point that’s worth mentioning:

“China is different. If the neocons want a new cold war with China, they’ll have to take on corporate America in the process, which would make for very interesting times in the GOP.”

Even this, however, is somewhat disappointing. He’s not wrong, that the economic and ‘strategic’ (if you will) factions of the Republican Party would be at odds over any perceived chances for conflict with China. In my own humble opinion, however, the economic faction would win out. Even the Democrats have a considerable faction that recognises the benefits America is reaping from China’s economic development – be it cheap products (raising the yuan would only make these products more expensive, and not by enough to make US-produced goods competitive or cheaper), and also the fact that China is financing America’s debt by buying millions-upon-millions of dollars-worth of US Treasury Bonds.

Beinart concludes:

“For the moment, America’s China debate takes place in two, artificially separate, spheres. When it comes to defense, the right—more than the left—uses the Chinese threat as a justification for bigger military budgets. But when it comes to economics, the left—more than the right—insists that the U.S. challenge the way China values its currency and treats its workers. The right wants America to grow more economically integrated with China even as we grow more militarily confrontational. The left wants America to risk rupturing our economic ties with China while any national security spills over.”

I think this is far too simplistic, as the economic side of the relationship is far too important and co-dependent for any side to really want to wreck them. Mostly, it is just rhetoric – and I think China recognises this, which is why they’re not really doing anything.

One must remember, though, that the Bush administration was totally distracted by the Middle East and the ill-advised misadventure in Iraq and the botched campaign in Afghanistan, and then spent much of the final years in office trying to fix their mess. He ignored China (save the EP-3 incident, really), because he simply wasn’t that interested in it, and the economic side of the relationship just kept ticking over (as it more-or-less did in Clinton’s administration, and will in Obama’s, I imagine).

Beinart’s article started with the argument that Obama is more ‘hawkish’ than Bush, meandered away from there to discuss the Republican-Democrat China arguments, and then stopped. I think the real difference between Obama and Bush is that the 44th President is engaged in the issues revolving around China far more than Bush – for whatever reason this may be, this can’t be a bad thing. China is the issue of the next few decades, and any president who distances himself from the issues is doomed to just give China the impression that the status quo will continue. Whether Obama deals with the issues properly, however, is an entirely different argument.