Joshua Cooper Ramo: How to Think About China

In Time Magazine, Joshua Cooper Ramo, Managing Director at Kissinger Associates, writes about U.S.-China relations in anticipation of the upcoming meeting between Presidents Hu and Obama:

So it is worth asking: Who, exactly, will President Barack Obama be looking at in Washington as he sits down with China’s President Hu Jintao during the coming nuclear-security summit? A friend? An enemy? The fact is that China is changing so fast, we don’t really know yet. What Obama will really be looking at is something far more important: the chance to use dynamic, creative statesmanship to remake a relationship that will define the next 50 years of global power. No problem of international politics can be solved without a coherent China strategy. So the more interesting question is not what is in Hu’s mind but what is in Obama’s. Does Obama have a clear sense of the man he is dealing with and how to shape the tense landscape of our relations? Does he understand the rules of power that might make real friendship with China possible — or lead to catastrophic deadlock? (See pictures of the mysterious life of Hu Jintao.)

More than anything, Obama needs to replace our outdated ideas for dealing with China. Beijing can’t, as many cold-warrior views of it might wish, be “contained”; it’s far too interwoven into the global system for that. But it is also true that the fantasy some had of “engagement” — the hope that as China became richer, it would become more supportive of American interests — isn’t working out either. What the U.S. needs is a new strategy. It should be one that takes a ruthless defense of American interests as a starting point, since without that, no strategy is sustainable. It must reflect a real understanding of the levers of power in Beijing and the psychology of the Communist Party leadership. And it has to unite us with our allies, both as a way of blunting China’s instinct to play us off one another and because much of China’s beef is with the West, not just with the U.S. This is a moment and a problem that demand an ambitious and confident solution. But they also demand something that may be harder for the U.S.: while China needs to change, so, in the face of a changing world, does America.

On a lighter related note, in Forbes Gady Epstein channels Thomas Friedman to offer advice to President Hu before his meeting with Obama.

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