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Shock! China pursues national interest!

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This post is part of the US China policy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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16 February 2010 16:21


This post is part of the US China policy debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson has made a claim about US-China relations very similar to one made by my colleague Raoul Heinrichs some weeks ago, to which I took exception (the entire debate thread is here). Samuelson says:

The prevailing American assumption was that as China became richer, its interests and values would converge with those of the United States.

Samuelson provides no examples to back up his claim that this is a 'prevailing assumption', which just reinforces the scepticism I expressed in response to Raoul. Nevertheless, Samuelson argues that recent differences between the US and China show this prevailing assumption to be 'fundamentally' wrong. Good thing, then, that it never really prevailed anyway.

Samuelson puts too much weight on recent troubles. There is a natural tendency to believe that recent events are really important, yet previous US Administrations have had quite productive relationships with China after also going through early controversies. Who knows if this current round of troubles represents a substantive shift or just a bump in the road?

There's also a strange lack of empathy and self-awareness in Samuelson's view of China:

Most American-Chinese disputes reflect China's unwillingness to endanger domestic goals for international ends. It won't commit to binding greenhouse gas cuts because these could reduce economic growth and (again) jobs. On Iran, it values its oil investments more than it fears Iranian nukes. Likewise, it worries that unrest in North Korea could send refugees spilling across the border. Because Taiwan is regarded as part of China, U.S. arms sales there become domestic interference. And censorship is needed to maintain one-party control.

Samuelson takes all this as evidence of a 'China First' strategy, but it really doesn't sound all that unreasonable. Isn't the US Congress' attitude to greenhouse gases pretty similar to the one he ascribes to China? Doesn't the US ever trade off its security and economic interests? Aren't refugee flows a pretty legitimate concern? And which authoritarian state is not concerned with maintaining control?

Samuelson seems shocked by the behaviour of a self-interested state operating in an anarchical system. But why should we be surprised that China is putting its own interests first and only working within the existing world order when it works to China's advantage? 

It all makes one wonder whether the 'prevailing assumption' Samuelson tries to demolish was actually his.

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