During Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington today and tomorrow, the carefully choreographed meetings are expected to focus on "bilateral issues" in the U.S.-China relationship: namely, the two nations' currency dispute, military competition, and ongoing trade deals. But some of the most important repercussions of the U.S.-China relationship, and how Presidents Obama and Hu define it, are felt in neither Beijing nor Washington but in the far-away reaches of the world's most troubled states. China wants to become a world power and the U.S. wants to control and isolate that rise. How this tension plays out could affect -- decisively, in some cases -- nearly every other issue at the top of Obama's foreign policy agenda. This week, as the two leaders inevitably discuss the U.S. policy of "strategic containment" against China, Obama will have consider whether he prefers a weaker and less responsible China or a stronger China that just might be a bit more cooperative with the rest of the world.
Because China is so hungry to project influence and acquire resources wherever possible, and because the U.S. has been so successful at containing China's reach wherever possible, the rising power has felt compelled to do business the last places it can. Increasingly, that lands Chinese diplomats and industrial representatives in the world's nastiest rogue states. As world leaders and multinational groups deploy sanctions and diplomatic pressure to try and curb bad actors, China is almost always ready to exploit the situation. It's a familiar and deeply frustrating pattern: a rogue state acts out, the world imposes sanctions to force better behavior, and then China steps in to cut deals with the newly isolated country. It's a great deal for China, which gets bargain basement prices, and for the rogue state, which is free to continue whatever atrocious behavior earned it worldwide scorn.
Meanwhile, the Western-led global community has lost much of its ability to credibly deter bad behavior. Worst of all, the rogue state's victims -- slaughtered ethnic minorities, oppressed democratic activists -- are less likely to find reprieve. So far, China has undercut global cooperation against the regimes in North Korea, Iran, Burma, Sudan, Sri Lanka, and Zimbabwe. If international sanctions hit Côte d'Ivoire, it seems likely that China will be happy to undercut those sanctions by buying up the country's oil when prices rise this summer.
The U.S. isn't to blame for China's opportunism, of course, but we may be in a position to manage it. China has reached out to rogue states partly because it has been so stymied in East Asia, where a U.S.-led coalition of regional states, stretching from South Korea and Japan to Thailand and Indonesia, have isolated China in its own backyard. This has effectively reduced China's influence in the region, especially in the resource-rich South China Sea and its islands, but has also trained China to think of U.S.-led coalitions, whether in East Asia or in the United Nations, as antagonists. Recent polls indicate that Chinese respondents are increasingly wary of U.S. influence in East Asia, which they see as a threat. This has also accelerated the rise within Chinese politics of the People's Liberation Army -- a body far less likely to favor global cooperation or to consider Western pleas against, say, investing $40 billion in Iran.
As with so many foreign policy problems, the U.S. faces a dilemma between two uncertain and risky paths. On our current path, the U.S. minimizes China's rising global influence but, in exchange, accepts that China will continue undercutting global efforts against all but the most dangerous rogue states. In his meetings with Hu this week, however, Obama could consider a different path. By easing its containment policies, the U.S. might purchase better behavior. For example, Chinese poll respondents ranked the "Taiwan question" as the second most important issue Hu should address during his visit in Washington. It's probably a far lower priority for the U.S., which is reportedly considering a $4 billion upgrade to Taiwan's air force. Scaling back such deals, which are clear signals to China, could buy Hu's short-term cooperation on an issue important to the U.S., such isolating Côte d'Ivoire. In the long-term, it might promote greater trust between the powers, instead of reinforcing those in China who see the U.S. as a threat. This strategy would carry real dangers -- weakening staunch U.S. allies such as Taiwan, for example -- and no promise of paying out. But the current strategy is anything but safe. Whichever path the U.S. and China take, the rest of the world will be dragged along with them.
Image: Presidents Obama and Hu meet at the Nuclear Security Summit in April. By Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty.