Despite some encouraging signs indicating the economy in some parts of the world is picking up, much uncertainty regarding the future of the world political and economic order remains. One thing that is certain, however, is the shifting balance of power, particularly palpable in the weakening of the US's global influence in relation to China's continuing rise to becoming arguably the only country that is capable of challenging the US's status as the world's sole superpower. Though China's rise to power has long been viewed as inevitable, it was made clear once again during President Obama's recent official visit to China, where he met with China's President Hu Jintao to discuss key issues such as climate change, the economic recovery and trade, human rights, and nuclear proliferation. During the talks, America no longer reserved the exclusive rights to flex its muscles unconditionally; on the contrary, America exercised unusual restraint in the face of another rising giant that holds $2.2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, a majority of it in dollars, further demonstrating the substantial economic and political clout China has not just in its relation with the US, but with the rest of the world.
White House officials describe the trip as a success; however, many experts and analysts see it differently. This trip, according to them, resembles a reluctant acceptance of the shrinking advantages Washington once enjoyed in past meetings. President Obama had hoped to sway China, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, to follow its fellow member Russia's footsteps on the issue of Iran's nuclear weapons, where President Obama was successful in getting Russia's President Dimitri Medvedev to open up to the prospect of using sanctions against Iran. Contrary to Russia, China evades Washington's request by refusing to comment on the sanctions. Instead, China suggests the use of dialogue and negotiations to resolve the situation. President Obama also failed to persuade China on the monetary front, as China once again refused to discuss the possibility of revaluing its currency. Although the two heads of state discussed various important issues facing the 21st century, with both acknowleding each other's commitment and role in navigating the world to a more peaceful and stable economic and political environment, no concrete agreement was reached between the two on the key issues. China undoubtedly held firm against most of Washington's demands, a clear demonstration of its ability to resist outside pressure, and more significantly, that it does not have to conform to any western models or values the US may try to impose on them.
Many critics may have criticized President Obama's soft stance towards China and not pushing hard enough for American interests, as have recent presidents, more notably Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. President Obama's attitude, nonetheless, represents a more realistic acknowledgement and acceptance of the US's diminishing influence over China. With this shifting balance of power, the dialogue and language between the two was much like an unharmonious dance choreography where many abstract ideas were displayed but no concrete conclusions were drawn. The only consensus the two could reach was on climate control, where the two agreed to establish a joint Clean Energy Research Center, and both countries plan to unveil their target to cut greenhouse gas emissions at the upcoming Copenhagen summit later this month. Given that both the US and China have made a bold and ambitious step towards climate change, the pressure is on for the other remaining major economies, most notably India, to take the appropriate steps and measures of their own to reduce the rate of growth of emissions.
These talks mark a significant milestone in American Post-WWII history. For the first time over the past few decades, the US finds itself in unfamiliar territory, one where its hegemonic influence is challenged by another resurrecting giant who is unafraid to say "no" to its demands. In this new world order, the US finds itself in the unusual predicament of having to rely more on soft power and persuasion rather then simply flexing its military muscles. The US has undoubtedly been burdened by its obligations at home as well as overseas with its continuing problems in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and it will only continue to see its reliance on foreign powers like China grow. This is one reality the US can no longer ignore - the sleeping dragon has indeed woken and is ready to stake its claim in the new international order, with or without the blessing of the US.
May Hu is a student at New York University.
Related Material from the Atlantic Community:
- Greg Randalph Lawson: Hedging is Wise as China Rises
- M Brzezisnki and M Fung: What Obama Should Propose in Beijing
- Memo 20: Consistent Engagement is Key