China and the US: The roadmaps

While Beijing tries to address the West’s concerns, Hillary Clinton has a conflicting vision for the 21st century.

Jiang China
Author examines how political leaders in Washington and Beijing are interpreting the future [EPA]

Inquiring minds scattered across the world have been pondering whether Washington elites are sneakily slouching towards Beijing – as in eventually focusing on China as the ultimate bogeyman and catalyst of the Pentagon-denominated Long War.

It’s as if Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention Libya and the fight for African resources, were mere pawns in the master chess game of the 21st century featuring the US and China.

The Arab Spring, in its early Tunisian and Egyptian chapters, led to the impression that the neo-conservatives promoted ‘clash of civilisations’ was over.

But the 2012 race to the White House has revealed that it is a return of the living dead. With the troubling add-on that Washington reserves for itself the right of nuclear first strikes against any possible confrontation with competitors – China and Russia.

So it’s time to back off and examine how the leadership in Washington and Beijing is interpreting the future.

Exhibit A is China’s Peaceful Development, a white paper released by the State Council Information Office, the cabinet at the heart of the system in Beijing.

Exhibit B is America’s Pacific Century, a wittily-titled essay published by Foreign Policy magazine and written by “global superstar” (according to CNN) and smart power practitioner US Secretary of State Hillary “We came, we saw, he died” Clinton.

Readers are strongly encouraged to read both documents and draw their own conclusions.

Don’t rock my domestic boat

First a word on how Beijing works. The 370-member Central Committee – including ministers, provincial leaders, the top military brass, heads of state companies – is a sort of mega-board of directors of the Chinese Communist Party. 

The Central Committee selects the 25-member Politburo. And the Politburo selects the nine-member Standing Committee, the holy of the holies. It’s fair to assume the white paper has been commissioned and approved by these gentlemen.

The Politburo and the Standing Committee are responsible for the Communist Party’s tight grip on the Chinese state, the economy, the civil service, the military, police, education, the media, and last but not least, the carefully constructed official narrative of how China finally got rid of repeated historical humiliations by foreigners and is now a resurgent civilisation.  

The white paper has a crystal clear objective; to explain the Chinese model – and the mind-bending subtleties of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” – to the West.

The target audience is Washington and London, Paris, Berlin and Rome.

Yet the fact that Western corporate media barely noticed – not to mention discussed – the paper is already troubling.

The white paper stresses China’s “strong collective consciousness” and “sense of social responsibility” as much as the “multipolarity” of international relations. At the same time, in a subtle nod towards Washington, it rejects a “dangerous cold and hot war mentality”.

Three ultimate fears prevail in Beijing’s narrative. 1) A hardened Cold War mentality blinding the West; 2) The possibility of a trade war with the West; 3) Luan (“chaos”) of the political kind, provoked by outsiders who resent China’s phenomenal economic success.  

Even while discussing foreign policy, the paper makes it clear China’s top priority is domestic stability.

China’s interpretation of foreign investment, for instance, is that it is welcomed as long as it enhances domestic stability.

Thus everything is subordinated to “harmonious development” – Chinese President Hu Jintao’s trademark doctrine.

China’s top priority is domestic stability.

– Pepe Escobar

That even implies, in the future, mechanisms to allow the Chinese people to “supervise the government” – something that in the West may be interpreted as democracy, even though not related to Scandinavia’s.   

While Beijing endlessly worries about domestic stability, the paper also stresses how dangerously easy it would be for a global economic crisis to force countries – another nod to Washington – to go to war.

So, essentially, Beijing wants “a peaceful mainly economic development in a peaceful multipolar world”. Yet the multi-trillion dollar question is whether the ‘Atlanticist’ West will let it happen.

Hillary’s concerns

Hillary’s essay is bound to express the views of the State Department, which may not necessarily be shared by the Pentagon and the CIA.

For all the smart power rhetoric, the stress is on “continued American leadership well into this century”.

Beijing will also be slightly disturbed that “our treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand are the fulcrum for our strategic turn to the Asia-Pacific”.

Hillary feels obliged to nod to her “Chinese counterparts, State Councillor Dai Bingguo and Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi”, as they have been engaged in “candid discussions about important challenges like North Korea, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and developments in the South China Sea.”

“Challenges” is the understatement of the century; China and the US fiercely disagree on all these dossiers. 

A measure of wishful thinking is at hand, as in “we look to China to take steps to allow its currency to appreciate more rapidly, both against the dollar and against the currencies of its other major trading partners.”

It won’t happen – and Beijing has already made it clear.

As in a Freudian slip, Hillary let it know that “Europe, home to most of our traditional allies, is still a partner of first resort”. And then “we move forward to set the stage for engagement in the Asia-Pacific over the next 60 years”.

So what is it going to be; a special relationship with Europe and just “engagement” with Asia-Pacific?

Unlike Beijing in the white paper trying to address the West’s concerns, Hillary only seems bothered to address Americans. 

What she does not say, but leaves implied, has more impact than the text itself. The eternal notion of the US as the indispensable nation. The barely disguised feeling of “danger” about the rise of China. The US in Asia as a benevolent outside power.

Beijing would have noticed there is not a word on Washington’s global drive to control remaining sources of oil, while trying to make life to Beijing as hard as possible.  

Not a word on the Pentagon-defined “arc of instability”: from the Maghreb to – you guessed it – Western China.

Not a word on the “need of strategic stability” for the Indian Ocean – which will put the US on a collision course not only with China but also with India.

Unlike Washington and Tehran, who never talk to each other, at least Washington and Beijing are talking, even if past one another.

– Pepe Escobar

Not a word on the US Navy’s 2007 maritime strategy – “sustained, forward presence” in the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. Or the US Marine Corps 2008 “Vision and Strategy” – covering up to 2025 – defining the Indian Ocean as a privileged theatre of conflict. 

Unlike Washington and Tehran, who never talk to each other, at least Washington and Beijing are talking, even if past one another.

Beijing has already announced its peaceful intentions. But when it looks at Africa – and sees its trade and commercial deals being counter-acted by a Pentagon-led militarisation drive – the conclusion is self-evident.

One can only hope that the parties will keep speaking softly – while carrying no big stick.  

Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times. His latest book is named Obama Does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.