Adjusting a mistuned policy: what a thought! (Public diplomacy with China dept)

In talking about Timothy Geithner's warnings on Chinese "currency manipulation" several days ago, my main criticism involved proportion.

Yes, the dollar/RMB exchange rate is one important element of US-Chinese interactions. But even if we're talking only about economic issues, it is not (in my view) the most important among them. And as soon as we think about the vast range of political, strategic, scientific, cultural and other ways in which the two countries will affect each other, it falls far down the list. I bet that from later historians' perspectives, whether the two countries can successfully grapple with climate/environmental/energy issues will matter most about their dealings in these next few years.

So why would the Administration choose to kick things off by talking about currency wars -- and nothing else?

Two positive developments today. One is a column by Rebecca MacKinnon which lays out very clearly why it is worth thinking about proportion and public opinion even in China, where the media are still heavily controlled and no national policy is subject to popular vote. She has a lot to say, in the form of a "Dear President Obama"-style open letter, but here's the gist:

if you really want to take U.S.-China relations to a new strategic level that rises above the day-to-day issues, you need to find new ways to engage the Chinese people themselves -- not just their government....The point is that while these people are not citizens of a democracy, they are by no means an undifferentiated mass of brainwashed drones.

The other is a set of comments to reporters by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (first time I have typed those five words), in which she provided exactly the proportion missing in earlier remarks. The gist here, via Centrist Vector:

[W]e need a comprehensive dialogue with China. The Strategic Dialogue that was begun in the Bush Administration turned into an economic dialogue, and that's a very important aspect of our relationship with China, but it is not the only aspect of our relationship. So we're going to be working together in the government across our agencies to design a more comprehensive approach that we think will be more in keeping with the important role that China is playing...

And given the current global economic crisis, you know, we have to work our way through that with the minimum amount of damage to global capacity to restart the economy. You know, obviously, our economic problems here at home mean that people are being laid off not only here in America, but also in China. And so the economy will always be a centerpiece of our relationship, but we want it to be part of a broader agenda, and that's what we're working to achieve.

That's the first time I've heard such thoughts spoken out loud, rather than in a web-site policy paper, by anyone associated with the Administration, notably including the president.

What have we learned here? To me, it's impressive that the Administration, having started with a misstep, sensed the error and began the recovery within one week of inauguration day. That doesn't in itself resolve the difficult issues, but it's better than failing to sense errors or stubbornly refusing to adjust-- and therefore a startling change from  the recent past.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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