Although Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner met over the weekend with his counterpart in Beijing, putatively to ease tensions, there is little question the Obama administration is gearing up for a concerted economic/diplomatic offensive against China, which U.S. officials accuse of keeping the value of its currency, the renminbi, too low.
This may be an election-time maneuver. Democrats across the country are accusing their Republican counterparts of “shipping jobs overseas,” and China — a country with an undoubted impact on the world economy that is still a bit mysterious and prone to pugnacious gestures — makes an easy target for the jingoists Democrats increasingly resemble.
Continued tension, however, is likely. Whether wisely on its part or not, China holds a significant portion of the U.S. government’s debt. The country is not only facing a transition of power, it is facing problems with the export-first mercantilist approach its leaders have adopted for the past several decades and that has until recently contributed to impressive economic growth.
But the current global recession severely cut back markets for Chinese exports in the United States and Europe, and the Chinese are desperately casting about for another economic-growth model.
In the meantime, growth has bolstered Chinese military prowess, and it has increasingly sought closer alliances with other Asian countries and rattled its missiles in ways that can be interpreted as anti-American.
So the Obama administration has shifted from its previous proclivity to court China to something that more closely resembles attitudes encouraged by U.S. neoconservatives in the late 1990s, after the Soviet Union had collapsed, and the keepers of the military-industrial complex were casting about for a new adversary worthy of our outsized military spending.
In response to a Chinese decision to withhold shipments to the U.S. of some rare earth elements used in high-tech military applications, the U.S. sent a high-level delegation to Beijing to protest. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in July that the U.S. was ready to facilitate talks between China and its neighbors over disputed islands in the South China Sea, which outraged the Chinese.
The administration has also announced it will entertain a complaint from the United Steelworkers union that China’s subsidies for “green” technologies amount to unfair trade practices — even as the U.S. announces more subsidies for similar technologies.
All this uproar should bolster the perception that George Washington was wise when he advised his new country not to pick out special friends or special enemies in the world at large, but to carry on friendly commercial relations with all nations while getting entangled in their politics as little as possible.
There are plenty of problems in the great world out there without our government sallying forth in search of dragons, real or imagined, to slay.