Jeffrey Wasserstrom: China and the U.S.: Too Big to Fail





[Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, to be published in April by Oxford University Press]

Beijing has fervently denounced U.S. President Barack Obama's plan to sell more arms to Taiwan, and loudly demanded that he break his coming date with the Dalai Lama. Is this proof that China-U.S. relations have entered a radically new and deeply worrisome phase?

It's tempting to see it that way. There has been much talk of China ruling the world and the clash of civilizations this would prompt. Much has been made of the notion that Chinese leaders have been showing an unexpected cockiness vis-à-vis the U.S. of late, tightly controlling what Obama did when in China, refusing to follow American leads in Copenhagen and then lambasting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for criticizing Beijing in a Jan. 21 speech on Internet freedom. But it's a temptation worth resisting....

Just as all politics is local (to a degree), all diplomacy is domestic (to a large extent). China's dramatic growth may have increased its ability to be less deferential toward the U.S. But when officials loudly proclaim that foreign leaders should steer clear of the Dalai Lama, lash out against Clinton's "information imperialism" or stoke popular indignation about Taiwan, their motivation is largely a desire to play the nationalism card as effectively as possible at home, and it is as much a sign of insecurity as it is one of bravado....

A series of similar actions doesn't necessarily represent a coherent policy. Several instances of the Chinese government acting "tougher" could just be discrete events....

Whenever we think about how China's rise is sending shock waves through the international order, we should remember that this has happened before. From the 1890s to the 1910s, a continent-sized country was ascending. It claimed to hate imperialism yet wasn't above extending its control over territory. It had a tendency to go it alone, and made other powers nervous. That country was the U.S....

While Washington and Beijing seem very much at odds just now, we shouldn't let their current state blind us to how intertwined they have become, nor to parallels between America's rise at the start of the last century and China's at the start of this one. Whether they like it or realize it, their relationship is truly one thing too big to fail.


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John B Chesebrough - 2/19/2010

Interesting article however, I challenge the comparison of China today to the U.S. in 1890's-1910's. In the U.S. this was a period of domestic isolationism from a political perspective. If the suggestion is that the U.S. was persuing competative advantage in international trade, ok, I concede that point, but with one question... Who wasn't??

The working theory these days is that China is hell bent on conquering this country by owning all our debt. While this may be true, it is not the strategy the U.S. was persuing at the turn of the 20th century.

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