The fault lines in this weekâ€™s â€œstrategic dialogueâ€ between American and Chinese leaders remained largely unseen, like a low-grade infection that can flare up without warning. Those fault lines matter mightily, however, because the United States and China are the critical players in the globalization process shaping every economy in the world. And despite Americaâ€™s insecurities about Chinaâ€™s rising power, the fact is, we retain most of the advantages in a complicated relationship best described by the Financial Times this week as â€œadversarial symbiosis.â€
The convergent interests of the United States and China are obvious and a cause for satisfaction at this weekâ€™s talks. Most important, each is an enormous purchaser of the otherâ€™s goods, so that domestic demand in one is a source of employment in the other. Nevertheless, the trade relationship will continue to have a sharp political edge so long as China sits on the other side of Americaâ€™s largest bilateral trade deficit. Yet, it really shouldnâ€™t be. We import more from China than from anywhere else, because China is both the worldâ€™s largest producer of many cheap goods that Americans hardly make at all anymore â€” tee shirts and toys, for example â€” and a favored place for U.S. multinationals to assemble more complex products for the U.S. and other markets. In fact, nearly half of the high-tech products imported from China â€” computers, televisions, cell phones, and so on â€” are goods that U.S. producers merely finish or assemble there, sometimes using advanced parts made in America. And so long as the American economy is three to four times the size of Chinaâ€™s, and much more weighted to consumption, no one should be surprised at our importing four to five times as much from China as China imports from us.
The economic truth is that America runs huge trade deficits with the world, because for years we have insisted on consuming much more than we produce, and imports are the only way to make up the difference. The flip side of this high consumption has been our low savings â€” at least until the current recession decimated so many peopleâ€™s savings and wealth â€” creating another fault line in the U.S.-Sino relationship. That low savings forces us to borrow abroad to finance some of our consumption, along with our budget deficits and business investment; and China with the largest surplus savings in the world has become our largest creditor. No one thinks of their creditors as their buddies â€” or the other way around â€” producing an unfamiliar and unpleasant dependency on an autocratic regime we donâ€™t trust. We cannot ignore that, if China were to decide to abruptly reduce its lending to us, we would quickly find ourselves in deep economic trouble. But China needs us just as much economically, and not just to keep on buying Chinese goods. Just as important, China has to rely on the U.S. following economic and currency policies that will preserve the value of all the American assets â€” Treasury securities, stocks, real estate, and companies â€” that China buys with the dollars we pay her for her goods.
China is dependent on the United States in other critical ways as well. American companies have been and remain a major source of Chinese modernization, through U.S. foreign direct investments (FDI) that transfer many of the worldâ€™s most advanced technologies, equipment, and ways of doing business from here to there. China depends on these transfers as the ultimate source of much of its growth, and sustaining strong growth is a central factor for the legitimacy of its leadersâ€™ authoritarian regime.
Chinaâ€™s reliance on the U.S. is also geopolitical. Chinese leaders desperately want and need peace, especially in Asia and the Middle East, so they can continue to direct most of the countryâ€™s resources to their gargantuan modernization project. These leaders have long recognized â€” and said so â€” that American superpower has become the only force in the world capable of projecting the military and economic might required to contain local conflicts and terrorist threats that could threaten regional or global stability. Thatâ€™s why the last U.S.-Sino military confrontation occurred 13 years ago, when President Clinton sent the Independence carrier battle group into the Taiwan Straits and the Nimitz to the South China Sea, and why we rarely hear Chinese criticism anymore about â€œAmerican imperialismâ€ or â€œU.S. warmongering.â€
In no area is Chinaâ€™s dependence on American superpower more important to China than the U.S. Navyâ€™s guarantee of the worldâ€™s sea lanes. These are the routes not only for most of Chinaâ€™s exports to the rest of the world, but also for the oil shipments from the Middle East, Africa and Latin America that fuel much of Chinaâ€™s economy. Yet, energy also is an increasingly important fault line in the U.S.-Sino relationship. For the last decade, China has aggressively pursued long-term supply relationships with state oil companies across much of the world, including joint ventures, extended leases, and other arrangements. In some cases, China develops another countryâ€™s oil fields in exchange for sole or heavily-favored access to whatever is found. (In Iranâ€™s case, China also sweetened the development deal by building a new Tehran subway system.)
Chinaâ€™s emerging global network of oil-supply relationships could become a point of conflict in the next global oil crisis. Beyond such a crisis, Chinaâ€™s rising economic influence in countries that the United States sees as vital to its own geopolitical plans and interests will almost certainly create new fault lines in future U.S.-Sino relations. But it also could foreshadow a time when China will constructively engage in a number of serious global matters, from climate change and terrorism to intellectual property rights and currency adjustments, where the United States and most of the rest of the world would welcome their contribution.