China bashing has become as much a part of the modern American political tradition as criticizing foreign producers of oil, yet it seems few have actually stopped to think about whether it is justified. The American electorate has become accustomed to the predictable torrent of anti-Chinese rhetoric from politicians of a variety of political persuasions -- in large part because of a subtle and uncomfortable recognition that China is beating the U.S. at its own game; Some would even say the Chinese are better capitalists than Americans will ever be. Indeed, China has made remarkable economic progress over the past twenty years -- in large part because of its embrace of 'socialism with Chinese characteristics' -- otherwise known elsewhere as capitalism.
A decade ago, American politicians bashed China largely for political reasons. Today, it is for primarily economic reasons. With China having become the second largest economy in the world last year, and poised to overtake the U.S. in economic size in the next decade, it is no wonder American politicians are on the offensive. It should be no surprise that Americans may bristle at the notion that capitalism has helped China slowly dominate the global economy.
China is, of course, not above criticism, just like any other country, and American politicians do raise some valid points in criticizing China. For example, the Chinese yuan is undoubtedly undervalued, given that it does not freely float in the foreign exchange markets. And the Chinese government does control large parts of the Chinese economy through state-owned enterprises, which distorts the domestic market and gives some Chinese companies unfair competitive advantages. But China must compete in the global marketplace like any other country and it pays a price for supporting companies that should otherwise fail as a result of being poorly run, inefficient, and bloated.
If the U.S. does not like the way China does business, it is free to do business somewhere else. What goes left unsaid, however, is that China has become too important for the U.S. do that, and what U.S. politicians fail to acknowledge is that the U.S. is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the economies of Asia, while China has become the cornerstone of Asia's fantastic economic growth. China's trade with the ASEAN countries jumped six-fold between 2000 and 2009, to US$193 billion, surpassing that of the U.S. China's share of Southeast Asia's total commerce for the period increased to 11.3 percent from 4 percent, whereas the U.S.'s share of trade with the bloc fell to 10.6 percent from 15 percent.
Another thing that gets left unsaid is how important China has become as a destination of U.S. exports. According to the U.S. Treasury's own report, "in the second half of 2009, U.S. exports to China increased by 15 percent on a year-over-year basis, while U.S. exports to the rest of the world fell by 13 percent. In the first quarter of 2010, U.S. goods exports to China rose by more than 40 percent compared to the same period the year before, while U.S. exports to the rest of the world rose by less than 20 percent." China's rapidly growing middle class is the single most important factor for the success of President Obama's Nation Export initiative. The U.S. not only needs to tap China's vast foreign currency reserves (in excess of $3 trillion -- more than 10 times that of the U.S.) in order to finance its trade deficit and fiscal deficit, it also needs access to China's vast market in order to sustain its economic recovery and create much needed jobs for American workers. When was the last time you heard a U.S. politician admit that?
Of course, both countries have legitimate criticisms of the other, but they know they need each other, and neither country is going to disappear. So instead of following predictable (and boring) scripts, why not turn the page on Cold War-esque rhetoric and find ways to join hands with China so as to mutually benefit from each other's comparative advantages? The fact is, China needs and wants the U.S. to succeed economically -- as the largest holder of U.S. Treasury Bills -- and the U.S. should want China to succeed, so that it has a long-term marketplace for its exports. We are not talking here about some starry-eyed vision of utopia, but rather, a realistic and sensible approach to future bilateral economic relations. Rather than bashing China, U.S. politicians would be well advised to forge a stronger relationship with China.
President Obama gets it. Last year he said:
"I believe there is much to be gained from a closer working relationship with China. Indeed there are very few global challenges, if any, we can address effectively without China's active cooperation. They are a global economic power, and engagement with China's government is an important step in stemming the financial crisis that has devastated economies around the world. Both of our nations seek to lay a foundation for sustainable growth and lasting prosperity.
My Administration is also working with China on a number of security issues, including stopping North Korea's nuclear program, rolling back the advance of extremists in Pakistan, and ending the humanitarian crisis in Dar fur. The United States and China share common interests on a host of issues -- including energy security and climate change, food safety and public health, and nuclear non-proliferation and counter-terrorism.
We want to work with them to address these issues in the years ahead. Improved relations with China will require candor and open discussion about those issues on which we may disagree. We must address human rights, democracy, and free speech. We must also work to ensure that our nations play by the rules in open and transparent economic competition. These important matters will be essential elements of our ongoing dialogue with China."
The only Republican candidate for president we heard that kind of approach from was John Huntsman, who unfortunately failed to connect with American voters.
A sustainable economic recovery in the U.S. cannot be achieved by isolating China. The U.S. and China may seem like the odd couple: the leading proponent of democracy and most individually-oriented nation and the leading communist and most communal-oriented nation. But considering what we can achieve together and what we will lose if we are pitted against each other, forming a Sino-American strategic alliance is critical to the future economic viability of both nations. American politicians, and the American people, would be much better off recognizing this, rather than using demagoguery to sow divisiveness between China and the U.S. The 21st century has no place for tiresome dated Cold War rhetoric. President Obama has the right approach.
*Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk consulting firm based in Connecticut (USA), Director of Global Strategy with the PRS Group, and author of the new book Managing Country Risk. Dee Woo is a lecturer in economics at the Beijing Royal School.
Follow Daniel Wagner on Twitter: www.twitter.com/countryriskmgmt