Thursday, April 27, 2006

King of the Hill?

King of the Hill?

…the outlines of China’s challenge to the United States are already beginning to take shape, and they are nothing less than sweeping.

What [China] proposes as a replacement for the status quo is sometimes called tian xia, or under the heavens. It is an obscure sounding but remarkably simple scheme that places all the nations of the world in a rules-based system that is not strictly egalitarian but would be governed by rules. Note to the United States: there is no room for a global hegemony.

As it evolves on a spectrum somewhere between Nazi Germany and contemporary Scandinavia, China will use its growing muscle in trade and finance to draw developing countries, particularly authoritarian ones attracted by its corporatist capitalism, into its embrace.

So when do the masks drop? When does the challenge become explicit?

Howard French, Letter from China: Is It a Peaceful Rise? US Shouldn’t Bet On It, Herald Tribune, April 21, 2006

Perhaps future historians will regard Hu Jintao’s speech in Nigeria on April 26, 2006 as the day China showed the cloven hoof, and reintroduced the world to bipolar, balance-of-power politics.

China wants a "strategic partnership" with Africa, President Hu Jintao said on Thursday, seeking to add a new political dimension to a blossoming economic romance.

In a speech to Nigerian lawmakers, Hu underlined China's respect for African "independence and sovereignty," which analysts said was a deliberate contrast with the United States' interventionist diplomacy under George W. Bush.

Tom Ashby, China Seeks “Strategic Partnership” with Africa, Reuters

His message is that we’ve probably moved beyond globalization as panacea thanks to the Bush administration’s polarizing zero sum politics and creeping confrontation with China.

Hu is also declaring we’ve moved beyond the rhetoric of the “world’s only superpower” thanks to the worldwide unpopularity of the Bush administration and the United States following our failure in Iraq.

The United States and UK haven’t gotten the memo. Either that, or they got it and are pretending they didn’t read it. They still act on the assumption that the world has reconciled itself to America’s place on top of a global moral and military hierarchy, and the Bush administration can dictate the terms of China’s participation in the world order.

But the idea that America serves as the world’s unquestioned arbiter of proper national behavior has fallen victim to America’s weakened moral and military position.

In retrospect, the rather pathetic farce of Hu Jintao’s reception in Washington, its non-state visit-lunch-only character, with its screaming protester miraculously admitted onto the White House lawn, with the sleeve-tugging, and the snoozing, looks more and more like an intentional and feckless attempt to assert America’s pre-eminence and China’s second-tier status.

But superpower status is not granted, it is earned—or even seized--and Hu took an important step in his direction with his Nigeria speech.

The reportage clearly communicates the hunger of third world countries for an alternative to brusque and unilateral American leadership, and nostalgia for the good old days of the Cold War, when fear of Soviet inroads modified and moderated US behavior and gave small states aid and alignment options. Again from Reuters:

Analysts said Hu's offer of an alternative to the United States' prescriptive foreign policy and "War on Terror" would be welcomed by African leaders.

"China is saying it wants to build a new world order based on consensus and tolerance, not the clash of civilizations," said former foreign minister Bola Akinyemi.

"It is bound to resonate in Africa, where we have 900 years of coexistence between Christianity, Islam and traditional religions."

It is a perverse credit to the current administration that only Bush’s unique combination of folly, incompetence, and cruelty could have made it possible for a rickety Communist state with an out-of-control economy to even think of defying US pretensions to world hegemony.

It’s another clear sign that we’re not in a post 9/11 world anymore. We’re in a post-Iraq world.

How long we stay in this particular world depends on the nature and quality of Bush’s response.

Bush is famously vindictive and short-sighted, especially when his jealously-guarded position and prerogatives as the world’s supreme law-giver are questioned.

Will the US response be petty and self-defeating?

Or will we mount an effective and attractive challenge to China in the battle for Third-World hearts and minds?

The answer will be important to America’s place in the world—and position on top of the heap—in this century.

P.S. The reference to "tianxia" in Howard French's quote strikes me as a reference to a passage in Zhang Yimou's film "The Emperor and the Assassin". One of the conspirators undermines Jin Ke's resolve to kill Qin Shih Huang by writing the characters "tian xia" in the sand. In Zhang's reading, Jin Ke realizes that the emperor has the power to unite the feudal states and turn China into a genuine moral actor "under heaven", instead of a collection of squabbling, self-centered princes and warlords. So Jin doesn't kill the emperor. That's not the way Sima Qian tells it (Jin Ke suffers a cartographic malfunction and his wholehearted attempt to assassinate the emperor fails). Zhang attracted a good amount of unfavorable comment for his variation on this famous Chinese historical theme, since the Qin Emperor is generally viewed as a stand-in for Mao Zedong. To some, Zhang seemed to be excusing Mao's excesses because he had unified the country and elevated it to the status of a world power.

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