Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


US-China power fatigue
La Stampa - May 30th 2011

We crave simplicity, or at least simple explanations. As Barack Obama made his triumphal, political-celebrity-in-chief tour of Europe last week, many wanted to believe that America remains the world’s dominant, even hegemonic power, despite all the forecasts of decline. Then, when news came from Pakistan that China would soon have a naval base in that country, many wanted to believe that this was a defection by Pakistan into the Chinese camp, confirming the shift of power to the east. Which is right? Neither.

            The reality is far more complex. The nature and distribution of power in the world has changed. It has changed gradually over the past several decades, but it sometimes takes sudden shafts of sunlight to reveal the way it has changed.

            The sunlight beaming down on the Gwadar seaport in Pakistan is one of those revelatory shafts, it is true. China has been an ally of Pakistan for more than three decades, essentially because of China’s desire to surround its great Asian rival, India, with problems and pressures. The Chinese supplied the technical blueprints for Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons programme, along with military aid during the 1980s and 1990s. It has been carefully building other alliances around the Indian Ocean too, with Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. But it had been careful not to look too confrontational.

            Pakistan’s humiliation as a result of America’s killing of Osama bin Laden changed that, not from China’s point of view but Pakistan’s. The Pakistanis suddenly had a motive to show that they are not going to be America’s puppet, that they have alternatives. So they revealed what Indians have suspected for years: that Chinese aid for the expansion of the Gwadar seaport is also going to give China naval facilities, that country’s first outside its own coast.

            This reveals two subtle, somewhat contradictory things. The first is that as China grows economically, and as its economic interests in Africa, the Gulf and Latin America grow, so it naturally wants to project its military power further afield than just its own coastline, in order to protect those interests. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been virtually alone as a military power capable of projecting its influence all around the world. The Gwadar base is a confirmation that China is on the way to joining it, a fact that will no doubt be confirmed during the next decade as China develops and builds a fleet of aircraft carriers.

            Yet the second thing that the Pakistani announcement showed was that China cannot any longer control the way in which its global expansion occurs and is revealed. The same was true in February when China was forced to decide how to vote on the United Nations resolution about Libya, a country in which more than 30,000 Chinese were working. Its old policy would have been to abstain. But, keen to show itself as a co-operative emerging global power, rather than a trouble-maker, it instead voted in favour of the resolution. Most remarkably, it thus voted for a resolution that pledged to report Libya to the International Criminal Court for treating its civilian protestors in exactly the way in which China had done at the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

            So China has more power, thanks to its economic growth, but also more dilemmas. The same is even true of its economic clout. This has made China more and more important to other countries as a trading partner, as a source of foreign investment and as a donor of overseas aid, especially in Africa and Latin America. As for Japan during the 1980s, that economic importance is bringing real influence to Beijing. But it is also bringing tensions and difficult choices.

During the past few weeks Brazil, one of the fellow “BRICs”, has begun to threaten China with trade retaliation if China does not open its own market more to Brazilian agricultural and industrial goods, and if it does not revalue its currency, preferably releasing the Chinese yuan to find its true value on international markets. Anyone who believed that Brazil, Russia, India and China (the BRICs named and made famous by Goldman Sachs as the world’s emerging future giants) would soon form an alliance against the West should think again. As this shaft of Brazilian sunlight showed, they are just as likely to oppose each other as to oppose the West.

So where does this leave the West? Watching China squirm a little in the sunlight revealing its naval expansion and its trade tensions with Brazil should make the West smile in recognition of a shared experience. That experience is that power has many dimensions; that it brings hard choices as well as opportunities; and that it is increasingly shared and diffused around the world, rather than being a zero-sum game.

That power is multi-dimensional ought not to surprise anyone. There is economic power, the use of money and of monetary opportunities to wield influence. There is the ideological power, the way in which ideas and values help to influence others, chiefly by their indication and implication for future behaviour and of future friendships. There is military power, the direct use of military force, or the implication of its use. And then in addition to these sorts of power wielded by nations and pan-national federations, there is power wielded in all these ways by other entities, by huge companies, by lobby groups, by terrorist organisations, by churches.

If you look at those many dimensions of power—economics, ideology, military, non-governmental—it has to be clear that the biggest concentration in all those categories continues to be in the United States. From time to time its economy can look weaker, its values become tarnished, its military is not all-conquering, its companies or lobbies can become degraded. But no other country can combine all four dimensions.

China has no ideological power, nor any influence through non-governmental organisations, for it will not allow any to grow. Europe is stronger on ideology and non-governmental influence, but currently its economic position is being held hostage by its sovereign-debt crisis and the inflexibility of too many of its economies, and its military limitations are being revealed in Libya on a daily basis. It cannot even keep its promises on overseas aid, as Italy has most shamefully showed.

President Obama toured Europe as political-celebrity-in-chief, despite his flaws, because he personally symbolises America’s greatest ideological asset, namely social mobility and opportunity, but also because his country is still looked up to as the most powerful in the world, across all those dimensions. The global financial crisis of 2008-10 dented America’s economic image, but it did not destroy it. In fact, the country has revived surprisingly strongly from the worst recession since the 1930s, and continues to be a technological and economic leader.

As President Obama said in his speech to the British Parliament last week, transAtlantic leadership is still both merited and required. There is no substitute for it, and it is still wanted, by most of the world. The popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East have confirmed the importance of the western idea of freedom and accountability. But transAtlantic leadership must be used in ways that recognise the way the world has changed.


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