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What Will Vice President Biden Find in China?

by Elizabeth C. Economy
August 8, 2011

Then-U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden at the Great Wall of China at Badaling, north of Beijing, on August 10, 2001.

Next week Vice President Biden heads to China for a round of talks with the country’s current and future leaders. Certainly it is not the easiest time for the vice president to make such a trip. Few things have been as dispiriting as the terrible heat waves the United States has endured this summer, except perhaps the state of American politics. Our president seems lost, the Democrats marginalized and voiceless, and the Republicans an ugly house divided.

So, in the midst of this U.S. political and economic funk, what is the reception likely to be in Beijing? What is on the mind of Chinese observers and media analysts? Are they similarly bearish on the United States? Were all the predictions of a serious loss in U.S. international prestige on target?

Here is what I found:

If Vice President Biden needs a feel-good moment, he might drop by for a chat with the Dean of International Studies at Peking University, Dr. Wang Jisi. His interview in the Global Times suggests that at least some Chinese think the United States still has some something to share with the world. In the interview, “US Power Strong for Decades” (the title is perhaps a bit over the top) Dr. Wang says, “Four reasons have contributed to the overwhelming power of the U.S. The tradition of rule of law ensures the nation’s political stability. The consistency and continuity of its social values guarantee the nation’s internal cohesion, enhancing its unique sense of patriotism. Technological and systematic innovations provide great power for society to move forward. And, a highly developed civil society generates strong self-correcting ability which prevents the nation from being led astray and committing strategic errors when dealing with external affairs.” (I think that this message may have been as much about what China has yet to do as about what the U.S. is good at.)

Predictably, there is a lot of talk about China’s holdings of U.S. debt. People’s Daily writer Ding Gang, who previously was based in the United States—and generally is a poster child for why spending time in the United States does not always lead to better feelings about America—sees an opportunity at this moment for China to use its Treasury holdings to pressure the United States on the issue of arms sales to Taiwan. He calls members of the U.S. Congress “arrogant and disrespectful” in ignoring China’s core interests by pressing President Obama to sell F-16 C/D fighter jets to Taiwan. Ding proposes a range of possible retaliatory moves such as stopping U.S. Treasury bond purchases, requiring international credit rating agencies to “demote U.S. Treasuries,” and launching trade sanctions against the states where members of Congress support Taiwan arms sales. Ding might look at the U.S. experience in trying to use its so-called “economic leverage” to influence China to get a sense for how likely such linkage is to work.

Striking a smart balance, I think, is Shen Dingli, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University. He raises a central issue for Vice President Biden, “Given the U.S.’s increasing difficulty in balancing its federal budget, how might it cope with the rise of Asian maritime powers, including China?” Shen’s response is useful: “Retaining America’s leadership in Asia depends on the [sic] U.S. innovation—spending less, saving more and reducing the debt. Other countries could help by importing and spending more, as their trade surplus with the U.S. contributed to U.S. borrowing. A prosperous Asia Pacific has to be built through collaborative effort.”

All of these views from some of China’s most prominent U.S. watchers suggest that Vice President Biden is unlikely to hear anything in China that he hasn’t heard before—either from the Chinese or from advisers and analysts here in the United States. The challenge, of course, is what he is going to do about it. As Shen suggests, the buck stops here.

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  • Posted by hughes

    In light of Vice President Biden’s visit to China, you made this observation: “few things have been dispiring as the terrible heat waves the US has endured this summer except perhaps the state of American politics”. First, this formulation really underplays the extent of the decline and dysfunction of the American political system that plain for most to see. While your notion is to underplay the true state of American politics, Jackob Augstein of Der spiegel online was more blunt in describing the state of modern America. In his 8-4-11 commentary, he said the same kinds of things that came to my mind while I was observing the debt ceiling debate. Here are some Augstein’s highlights: “Increasingly, the divided country has more in common with a failed state than a democracy”. He further goes on to say that in today’s America “reason has been replaced by delusion”. Please read the rest of his article for further insight. And here is my own analysis of the dysfunctional American political system and why it fortells that the decline of America is cleary an unavoidable condition of our time. Most American elites tend to view today’s political stalemates as being akin to other political stalements in America’s past history and that America always rose above them and came out on top. I disagree with this theory very strongly. Though there were political divides in the past and America rose above them, there is a clear distinction to taday’s political stalemates. And the distinction is that during past polical dysfunctions, there were always people on each side of the debate who knew and understood what was in the national interest rather than the riled up crowd. Rather than split the baby in two as many elites do so as to make everyone happy, I will bluntly say that the quality of leadership that is inclined to the national interest is not to be found in today’s Republican Party and it is not coming back. But if you believe that that kind leadership will come back to this Party in the future, then you wouldn’t have a problem in believing that the earth is 2,000 years old. And here is the reason why I am not at all hopeful about the Republican Party Changing course. Because this Party has been definitively taken over by faith-based theocrats and flat earthers for whom evidence, facts, reason and the force of logic are suspect and don’t matter. Nomatter how well your intent is, you cannot have a rational debate with these people, let alone a debate that asks what is the national interest. Regardless of evidence, they have one aswer to every problem that aflits America and that is to cut taxes for the rich and bringing the poor’s safetynet to an end. That is why I was curious when you advised mr. Biden that on his visit to China that he should also talk to Chinise scholars who would like to fix China so it looks more like America. Which is what American elites do all the time, running around the world and telling everyone how to fix their countries or fixing other countries with our tax dollars when we cann’t fix our own country. They forgot the lesson that before you tell another how to fix their house, make sure your own house is in order. If you are objective, you can say that while you may not like China’s political system, that atleast they are doing some very important things that we are not doing or should be doing. The Chinise do not do many things without first having the confidence that they are in the national interest. Putting aside their recent high speed railway accident, many western elites criticise them for building too many things too fast. If you think their high speed accident was odd, I suggest you watch the history of American railways on the History Channel. And America was a democracy during all time. Rather casting an entirely negative eye on China’s fast buildup of infra systems, an objective observer would sit back and ask what is China trying to achieve. Such an observer would conclude that China has a long time view and it is trying to build an ecology of infra systems so it will be able to move its 1.3 billion people across a fast nation. Unlike America and western elites, they know that they cannot do it by airlines and highways alone. In their mind, this may work for a nation of 300 million people, but not their own nation. Therefore, leave China alone, it is doing much better than most nations I know, including our own. Finally, I can predict with certainty that in about 30 years from today, China will become a democratic society. But it will not be a democracy like our dysfunctional one. But one that gives primacy to the course of the national interest and does not imped that which is in the national interest. It will not be ours where one Party wins the presidence and both Houses of congress, but under the guise of checks and balances the losing Party has veto power over whether the winnig Party can govern. Thank Elisabeth Economy, and I welcome any of your critical thoughts about my commentary here.

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