Earlier this year Zbigniew Brzezinski ran an op-ed in the China Daily around the time he was in Beijing celebrating the 30th anniversary of the normalization of relations with China. In the piece, Brzezinski called for the creation of a G-2 between the United States in China. The implication of Brzezinski's piece was basically: forget about the G-7 or the G-20. If you want to get something done in the world, that road runs from Washington through Beijing.
Brzezinski proceeded to outline an ambitious agenda for the new U.S.-China world axis. It would be responsible for solving the Iranian nuclear problem; sorting out the various messes in Afghanistan and Pakistan; bringing peace to the Israelis and the Palestinians - and then, once they were done with all that, solving climate change.
About six weeks later Robert Zoellick, the president of the World Bank, and Justin Lin, the first World Bank chief economist to be from a developing country, wrote another opinion piece seconding the idea of a Group of Two. And they added another task to the list: solving the global financial mess.
Not since the administration of Jimmy Carter has a president entered office with a more pro-China outlook. Reagan came into office vowing to improve relations with China's nemesis, Taiwan. George Bush Sr. pursued a generally pro-China policy but was constrained by Beijing's bad behavior, including the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989 and persistent reports that China was selling missile technology to Iran and elsewhere. Clinton ran on a platform that accused Bush I of "coddling the butchers of Beijing." George W. Bush termed China a "strategic competitor."
But other than an out-of-character outburst by Timothy Geithner during his confirmation hearing in which he accused China of currency manipulation, Obama's team hasn't said one word to irritate Beijing. Even Hillary Clinton announced during her first trip to China as secretary of state that human rights were effectively off the table. Most administrations take about 18 months to slough off their anti-China bias and get down to the business of dealing with China. Obama's anti-China moment lasted less than the duration of a confirmation hearing.
So Washington is seized with this idea of the G-2. Last week at the G-20, we saw it in action. We saw it with the United States and China, two of the only countries in the world with significant stimulus packages, standing shoulder to shoulder as they tried to push Europe toward the realization that it needs stimulus packages, too. We saw it in the halls of the Excel Center as Obama shuttled between China's president Hu Jintao and French President Nicholas Sarkozy to work out a last-minute deal on tax havens.
The question I have is whether the administration's hopes for China are really too high, and whether we are again falling into the trap of expecting more from China than it can deliver. That pattern in U.S.-China ties is an old one and it's never been very beneficial to the development of a sustainable relationship with Beijing. Indeed, just as demonizing China is a silly policy, so is an assumption that America's and China's interests magically coincide and that the two of us are going to go forth and slay the various dragons troubling the world. It's a recipe for disappointment.
The first disappointment is already upon us. Over the weekend Kim Jong-il, the North Korean dictator with the bouffant hairdo, undertook a ballistic missile test. Obama, in the Czech Republic, called for him to be taken to account. Kim's test was a clear violation of UN Security Council resolution 1718. Obama's administration wanted Security Council action. Our friends the Chinese? Not so fast. China's foreign minister Yang Jiechi stated: China "upholds using talks to solve the problem, and does not condone any action which may exacerbate or complicate the situation further." Translation: no tough Security Council moves.
The reason for the gap here is not just one of tactics. It's also because on the Korean peninsula, U.S. and Chinese interests are not the same. The United States wants a nuclear-free peninsula. But China first and foremost wants to maintain the North Korean regime. That bottom-line (and quite fundamental) difference colors how the two countries approach the issue. Assuming we agree on North Korea only muddles the issue and creates unwarranted expectations about how China will or will not act.
The next area for letdown will be Pakistan and Afghanistan. China has been helpful in that region. It has given money to Afghanistan and is even considering investing in a mine there. But will it help the United States one of its most nettlesome problems in the region - how to find a good route to re-supply American forces? Now that we're getting kicked out of Kyrgyzstan, will China step up and provide the United States access to Afghanistan via China's western border? I doubt it.
And then there's the financial crisis. I'd wager China will disappoint us here as well. There's an assumption that China is capable of using its substantial financial muscle to (with the United States) help right the world's economy. But for a country that has traditionally tended to define its interests narrowly, that could be a stretch. So again, our expectations for great things from China, I believe, are not going to be met.
Dennis Wilder, the former senior director for Asia at the National Security Council, writing in the Post a few weeks ago raised his concerns about the concept of the G-2. His main reason was that it would be a slap in the face to our allies. I'd like to add another reason. It's basically a romantic notion - and like a lot of romantic notions involving China, it's going to end in disappointment.