Such parallels can be exaggerated, of course, and it’s important to acknowledge that there are myriad differences (economic, ideological, geographical) between the two rising powers and their historical circumstances. The PLA and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are divided over key strategic issues, and their internal battles are likely to intensify prior to the next CCP national congress in 2012. A student of Confucianism, Chinese president Hu Jintao has urged the creation of a “harmonious society” with social cohesion and internal stability. To that end, he and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao have brought renewed attention to rural development and stressed the need to squash corruption — while also maintaining tight political controls and rigid censorship. In some ways, Chinese repression has gotten worse under Hu, disappointing those who initially saw him as a potential Gorbachev figure.
China’s younger generation is fiercely nationalistic, thanks in part to a state-led “patriotic-education campaign” begun in the 1990s. “The Communist Party has embraced nationalism as its new ideology in an age when almost nobody believes in communism anymore,” wrote former State Department official Susan Shirk in her 2007 book, China: Fragile Superpower. Yet the CCP is also paranoid about being toppled by a nationalist revolution, as the Qing Dynasty was in 1911. These fears increase Beijing’s willingness to “take risks to defend China’s national honor,” said Shirk, adding that the PLA is usually more hawkish than the CCP.
In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, Beijing officials of all stripes seem convinced that American power is on the wane, and that Chinese dominance of East Asia is the natural order of things. During its first year in office, the Obama administration may have inadvertently encouraged these attitudes through a series of conciliatory gestures designed to foster bilateral trust. For example, when President Obama visited China in November 2009, the two countries released a joint statement that said “respecting each other’s core interests is extremely important to ensure steady progress in U.S.-China relations.” The trouble is that Beijing’s self-described “core interests” include Taiwan, Tibet, and the South China Sea.
Speaking of Taiwan and Tibet, Obama angered Chinese leaders in early 2010 when he approved a $6.4 billion arms sale to Taipei and then hosted the Dalai Lama at the White House. These decisions affirmed that the broad strokes of U.S. policy toward China had not shifted much since the departure of George W. Bush. Indeed, Obama’s Asia strategy has largely built on the Bush legacy. “There’s far more continuity than change,” says Michael Green, who managed Asian affairs at the National Security Council from 2001 to 2005. Hillary Clinton has privately told former Bush officials that they got Asia right.
Unfortunately, many reporters are still wedded to the narrative that Bush ignored or neglected the region after 9/11. This is simply false. Yes, Condoleezza Rice skipped the ASEAN Regional Forum in 2005 and 2007, when she was serving as secretary of state, and her non-attendance was perceived as a slight. But the Bush team significantly boosted U.S. relations with countries throughout East Asia and the Pacific — including Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Singapore — while simultaneously deepening American engagement with China.
“From our perspective, U.S. policy on East and Southeast Asia under President George W. Bush was constructive and good for the region,” Singaporean foreign minister George Yeo said in February 2009. Indonesian leader Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, head of the biggest Muslim country on earth, has extolled Bush as “one of the most pro-Indonesia presidents” ever. And the China Daily, a state-run newspaper in Beijing, has praised his handling of U.S.-China ties, editorializing that Bush “laid a decent foundation for one of the world’s most influential relationships.”