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.