The speech given by US Deputy Secretary of State, Robert Zoellick, yesterday is getting a fair amount of attention. From a Confucian-inspired point of view, the speech seems out of place. Instead of lecturing China on what it should be doing, the US should be looking at its own foreign policy behavior and asking if it is setting the best example for constructive and humane action. As Confucius reminds us:
Adept Hsia asked about the noble-minded, and the Master said: "Such people act before they speak, then they speak according to their actions. (2.13)
Here are some actions the US should consider before telling China what it should be doing:
On the economic front, Zoellick warns that China's huge trade surplus with the US and its attempts to control trade and investment are undermining support in the US for keeping markets open to Chinese goods. But how does the US stack up in terms of international economic policy?
In fact we rely upon the Chinese trade surplus with us - that is how China earns the dollars it then uses to buy our growing government debt. Would the US accept a reduction in its deficit spending - which would be the internationally-economic responsible thing to do - in return for a reduction in China's trade surplus with us? Will the Bush Administration really gain control of its deficit spending any time soon? I know some might say that Chinese trade policy has been a problem for longer than the most recent US budget deficits. That may be true. But from the point of view of this administration, the US is again contributing (I say again because the deficits came down under Clinton) to problematic global imbalances. Here is the the Managing Director of the IMF from this past June:
....the U.S.'s budget proposals for fiscal year 2006 aim to halve the budget deficit in 4 years. If carried through, this effort at fiscal restraint will be a step towards sustainability. However, firm implementation of these proposals is critical and slippage must be avoided. What would be even more desirable is bolder deficit reduction, especially in view of the cyclical strength of the U.S. economy, and the importance of lowering government debt ahead of the retirement of the baby boom generation.
Does anyone really believe "bolder deficit reduction" will happen anytime soon, especially after the disaster of Katrina, the on-going mess in Iraq, the imminent landfall of another giant hurricane and the Republican's pledge not to raise taxes in the midst of all of this?
Yes, Chinese economic policy has its faults, but the US needs to look inward first, before it starts giving advice.
This is also true on the political front. The Washington Post story summarizes one of Zoellick's point thusly:
China should not attempt to "maneuver toward a predominance of power" in Asia by building separate alliances in Southeast Asia and other areas.
So, they should not seek predominance. But what has been the animating idea of Bush's foreign policy? Here's a line from the National Security Strategy document from 2002:
"Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States."
US foreign policy is based on the idea that no other country should equal us militarily. If we do not want others to seek predominance, how can we ourselves act to secure predominance?
Confucius would tell Mr. Zoellick, and President Bush, to look at what they are actually doing before they use fine words to counsel others.