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Brian Till
20 Jan 2010
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The Dysfunctional Marriage


In April 2001, a green and inward-looking American president had to deal with his first foreign policy crisis: an EP-3 Naval intelligence plane had collided with a Chinese interceptor. The plane was forced to make an emergency landing at a Chinese airfield. The Chinese Premier, Jiang Zemin, was scheduled to meet with President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in Brazil days later.

George W. Bush made a call to Cardoso on the eve of that meeting, and asked him to put in a good word for the release of the crew. Zemin, when Cardoso told him of the request, noted that Bush had only called once regarding the matter, adding that Clinton, after mistakenly bombing the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia, had called five or six times before he had responded. "It's bizarre," Cardoso recalls Zemin saying, "How old is the United States? Two hundred years old? Well, China is five thousand years old, and they must learn to respect us. I will release these American troops, but it will take some time. I will make them work for it."

At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, one of the most reported stories in the Western press centered upon the questionable age of members of the Chinese women's gymnastics team. The minimum age for participation is 16, and though female gymnasts are often stunted by their training, it was painfully clear that the Chinese, in order to secure gold, had been willing to forge documents and endure certain criticism. They were willing to defile one of the great symbols of internationalism and goodwill, and shamelessly at that, knowing that there was little the international community could do to rebuke them. For all the science and success testing for blood doping and constantly evolving enhancements, the Chinese had found a tactic too simple, and perhaps too pathetic, for the international system to deal with.

Couple these two moments with a third: A November trip by Obama to Asia, which American media largely treated as a failure, but in which a town hall held with 400 Chinese students — though blocked on Facebook and YouTube — likely reached at least 100 million Chinese televisions, and included the line: "I actually think that" having critics that are afforded a free press "makes our democracy stronger and it makes me a better leader because it forces me to hear opinions that I don't want to hear.

It forces me to examine what I'm doing on a day-to-day basis to see, am I really doing the very best that I could be doing for the people of the United States?"

As such, when the December Copenhagen climate change summit turned into an embarrassing debacle for the young American president, who had just finished accepting a Nobel Prize and who has come under fire for "arrogance," it seemed to fit into a pattern. It's difficult to sort out exactly what happened in the Danish capital; we know that Wen Jiabao didn't show up for the first closed-door meeting with heads of state, instead having a second-tier diplomat take a seat across from Obama. And that after meeting with Obama one on one for an hour, he failed to show up at another meeting of leaders. We also know that Obama raised his voice to Jiabao: "Mr. Premier, are you ready to see me? Are you ready?"

Managing this relationship will likely define the coming century: American unease and frustration coupled with Chinese lust for supremacy and respect. Two of the most important things written so far this year center on that tension. One is a cover story for the Atlantic Monthly by James Fallows; the other is titled "Green Giant," by Evan Osnos at The New Yorker.

Both deal with American fears and Chinese ambitions for a rebalanced geo-political world; both highlight the importance of American ingenuity, and argue that Beijing, for all its strengths, has tremendous flaws it will be forced to grapple with in the coming years; and both return to the promise of what the two nations — if ever able to forge a tenable relationship, economically and diplomatically — have to gain.

China will remain an incredible manufacturer and improver of American design; it will also, if we're unable to muster influence, remain shameless in its disaffection for American property rights. China will remain fearful of American influence and authority on issues of political freedom; it will remain as exasperated in the forced tango as its counterpart, and it will, at times, act erratically, as non-democratic governments are prone to do.

The Middle East and the perils of terrorism will remain a thorn in our side, but they've blinded us to what should be our most important geopolitical objective at the moment — finding a way to live happily with our volatile, aspirant domestic partner.

Brian Till, one of the nation's youngest syndicated columnists, is a research fellow for the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington. He can be contacted at To find out more about the author and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



1 Comments | Post Comment
Doesn't look like marriage to me.
One empire's dusk, is another empire's dawn.
And dawn comes from the East …

Ten years ago I thought that America has at least 50 more years of domination…
I guess two last American presidents work really hard to help….. China.
Comment: #1
Posted by: OBAMALAND
Sun Sep 4, 2011 9:42 PM
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