Last September 26, I broke with conventional wisdom and predicted that the economy, not the war in Iraq, would be the deciding issue in the 2008 election. I was wrong. Ironically, the issue that President Bush heralded as the most important challenge facing America before 9/11 will be the issue that determines his successor: China.
Regardless of what happens with the economy – whether we slip into a recession or narrowly avoid one – the issue will be an afterthought by August 2008. Either things will be getting better – as recent activity on Wall Street seems to indicate – or the issue will have lost its political currency as the drumbeat of recession fade to provide little more than the background rhythm to the campaign march.
Much to this political junkie’s regret, it looks more and more like the two parties’ conventions will provide no more drama than usual. Instead, the conventions and the campaign will be framed by what happens in the two weeks prior: the Beijing Olympics.
How we relate to China is perhaps the critical question facing America today. When he came to office, President Bush made it his top priority, engaging China in a dialectical competition of superpowers old and new. But then 9/11 happened and the world’s most populous country fell our of America’s consciousness, as the U.S. slowly developed a relationship with China that was more codependent than competitive.
The China Question is about much more than foreign policy and the basic question of whether we should have a competitive or a cooperative relationship with the country. Each approach is a dual-edged sword.
The chief argument for why we need a cooperative approach with China is economic. China is beginning to rival oil in its importance to America’s well-being. America’s ability to have growth without inflation depends on our ability to outsource manufacturing to China, while growing our science and service sectors here at home.
This trade benefits everyday Americans by keeping the products we buy affordable, and it benefits China by giving working-class jobs to millions of its inhabitants. Ours is a symbiotic relationship that, if broken, could have disastrous geopolitical consequences.
At the same time, China’s economic growth comes at a cost to the environment that can be seen on our shores. As much as a quarter of the air pollution in Los Angeles comes from China, and with its smoke-belching ships coming in to port in San Pedro and Long Beach, the Chinese can probably be considered the single-largest source of pollution in California.
China can no longer get a pass on the environment like it got in the Kyoto Treaty. Unless China joins in the fight against climate change, no regulation or cap-and-trade system here at home will make a dent. If we restrict our economic activity with environmental regulation while allowing China to pollute at will, the sun will set on the American empire faster than the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Morally, pursuing a cooperative relationship with China is dubious as well. Beijing’s human rights record is notorious and while its subjects are beginning to enjoy economic liberties, the concept of universal human rights is foreign to them. How can we claim to be defenders of freedom, whilst turning a blind eye on the world’s great oppressors?
Pulling out of China, economically, would be exponentially worse than pulling out of Iraq militarily, but maintaining the relationship without action on the environmental and human rights front will also place us in peril.
The China Question has everything: the economy, the environment, human rights and geopolitics. But it does not have partisanship, yet. Neither ideology espoused by John McCain, Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton provides a logically consistent answer to the many issues it raises.
This voter wants to know how our would-be Presidents would approach this tangled web with China, and after the world focuses on Beijing this summer, many others will be asking the same question: Is China friend or foe, or is our relationship status summed up with, “It’s Complicated”?