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China's power, and how they use it

By Ezra Klein

Americans don't necessarily like funding the military and aid expenditures that go along with being the world's single superpower, but they're pretty into the idea of being that superpower. That's why the conflict with China that's implied in American political rhetoric is that they're going to "catch up" to America, or they'll have the fastest train and we won't. They have more people, faster growth, a bigger class of freshly-minted engineers, and so on. To the American mind, it stands to reason that they'd want to make a play for the crown.

And maybe they will, eventually. But the more common policy conflict between America and China right now is that we want them to step up and do more on the international stage and they want to be left alone to do less so they can focus on domestic development. Afghanistan, global stimulus, global warming, Iran, and North Korea all follow this pattern. The Chinese phrase for their approach is "Keeping a Low Profile and Taking a Proactive Role When Feasible,” and they're putting a fair amount of effort into arguing for it. The American phrase for what we want from China, at least back in the Clinton administration, was "responsible stakeholdership."

But they don't really want to be treated like major stakeholders. And they've made a bunch of arguments to us as to why. Among them: America's sense of urgency is driven by an election-cycle impatience that's not always wise, China doesn't have the bureaucratic expertise to be involved in everything, China has more than 20 countries on its land and maritime borders that it's got to worry about while America only has two friendly borders, China is not a rich country and shouldn't need to act like one, and so on.

I don't have too much to say on this, but it's a reminder that the things that worry the public about China in the long term and the things that worry policymakers about China in the short term are almost perfectly opposed. On the one hand, we get a bit uncomfortable when other countries amass too much power too quickly. On the other hand, we want other powerful countries to use their power to take some of the burden off of us. That might say something about whether we really want and need to play the role that we do (say, ridding the world of Saddam Hussein, and almost trying to rid the world of the leadership of Tehran), but that's another question.

By Ezra Klein  |  May 25, 2010; 12:32 PM ET
Categories:  China  
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Ezra, I hope that you and/or the guest bloggers will have something substantive to say in the near future about the Korean tensions...

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 25, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

better guest bloggers please.

Posted by: obrier2 | May 25, 2010 1:24 PM | Report abuse

If you're going to count the countries on China's and our borders, irrespective of size, and you're going to include their maritime borders, you probably should include ours. Cuba springs to mind.

Posted by: WarrenTerra | May 25, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

So it sounds like the choice is on the American side, not on the Chinese side. China has already explained that it is not rich and powerful enough to do much other than fixing its gaze on internal issues.

Posted by: zhuubaajie | May 25, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, have you read River Town by Peter Hessler? If not, you should definitely check it out. Made my experience in China much more enriching.

Posted by: samuelec | May 25, 2010 8:50 PM | Report abuse

--"I don't have too much to say on this [...]"--

It's your typical muddle, Klein. The "public" and the "policymakers" (what a freaking sop that is) are almost *always* "perfectly opposed" on *everything*, not just your shortsighted subject du jour. Individuals crave freedom, governments crave control and subjugation. The U.S. government was founded on the idea that the tendency to control and subjugate would be severely constrained, but the controls weren't sufficient, and now we have dim shlubs calmly prattling about "policymakers" as though the tensions between the governors and governed are benign if we pretend they aren't the same old dictators we gave the heave ho to a couple centuries ago.

Also, your "when other countries amass too much power too quickly" needs further caveats, perhaps inserting "with track records of despotism, thuggery, war mongering, murder, subjugation, and denial of personal liberties" between the words countries and amass. No one has worries over the power that France and England wield, because they have favorable histories respecting individual rights, and standing for the causes of freedom and justice. Not so with China, not by a long shot, but Klein will never dwell on such distinctions.

Posted by: msoja | May 26, 2010 11:58 AM | Report abuse

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