Robert Samuelson: The Danger Behind China's 'Me First' Worldview

Roundup: Media's Take

[Robert Samuelson is a columnist for the Washington Post.]

It's become apparent from recent events that America's political, business and scholarly elites have fundamentally misjudged China. Conflicts with China have multiplied. Consider: the undervalued renminbi and its effect on trade; the breakdown of global warming negotiations in Copenhagen; China's weak support of efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons; its similarly poor record in pushing North Korea to relinquish its tiny atomic arsenal; the sale of U.S. weapons to Taiwan; and Google's threat to leave China rather than condone continued censorship.

The United States and China view the world in starkly different terms. The lesson of the Great Depression and World War II for Americans was that isolationism was self-defeating. Tried after World War I, it failed. The United States had to engage abroad to protect its economy and physical security. These core ideas remain the bedrock justifications for overseas military commitments and the promotion of an open world economy. The quest is for stability, not empire.

China, too, covets stability. But its history and perspective are different, as Martin Jacques shows in his masterful "When China Rules the World." Starting with the first Opium War (1839-42) -- when England insisted on importing opium from India -- China suffered a string of military defeats and humiliating treaties that gave England, France and other nations trading and political privileges. In the 20th century, China was balkanized by civil war and Japanese invasion. Not until the communists' 1949 triumph in the civil war was there again a unified national government. These experiences left legacies: fear of disorder and memory of foreign exploitation....

...China does not accept the legitimacy and desirability of the post-World War II global order, which involves collective responsibility among great powers (led by the United States) for world economic stability and peace.

China's policies reflect a different notion: China First....

It would be a tragedy if these two superpowers began regarding each other as adversaries. But that's the drift. Heirs to a 2,000-year cultural tradition -- and citizens of the world's largest country -- the Chinese have an innate sense of superiority, Jacques writes. Americans, too, have a sense of superiority, thinking that our values -- the belief in freedom, individualism and democracy -- reflect universal aspirations....
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