1.21.2007

China Syndrome - Keeping Vigil

Imagine the Sino-U.S. relationship as a nuclear reactor. Many, although not all, observers have long seen it as a positive, an engine of change and growth with everything humming along productively. There have been a few minor alarms in the plant, for sure, but generally we've been focused on a more blatant problem - a Chernobyl in Baghdad, if you will.

Unfortunately, that lack of focus lends to instability in the reactor. Our failure to address China as a competing superpower only shifts both parties toward a dangerous China Syndrome. And letting the bottom drop out would be disastrous.

Someone I know well has outlined much of this before:

"As the United States remains transfixed by the global fight against Islamic terrorism, and as our nation graduates fewer math and science majors than India or China, it is time to wonder whether we missed our modern day Sputnik. We must wonder whether the significance of the Chinese spy plane incident of 2001 was overshadowed all too quickly by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. We missed our wake up call — and we did so at our own peril."

Now, with China flexing offensive capabilities against orbiting satellites and getting some play on the front cover of TIME as an international competitor of concern, it seems the klaxons may finally be sounding.

As we've seen in places like the Sudan, China, as it works to build influence internationally, has more flexibility when it competes with the U.S. for resources and political pull. It doesn't wring its hands over human rights, giving it greater access to Africa, as noted in this insightful NRO piece:

Sahr Johnny, the Sierra Leonean ambassador in Beijing, noted that: “They just come and do it. We don’t start to hold meetings about environmental impact assessment, human rights, bad governance and good governance. I’m not saying that’s right, I’m just saying Chinese investment is succeeding because they don’t set high benchmarks.”

Nor does the Chinese leadership seem to be hamstrung by domestic problems. Yes, China faces dramatic social obstacles and environmental dilemmas, but its system of government allows for a greater flexibility abroad despite all that because it is not directly accountable to the Chinese people.

In the end, focus on Iraq and Iran means less focus on the long-term, global scale competitor. While fallout from the Chernobyl in Baghdad has global implications, it's time to start addressing the even bigger potential disaster, the specter of Chinese aggression toward American interests.

Keep a geiger counter handy.