The U.S. and China: The Defining Issue of Our Day

Published on Huffington Post, by Zachary Karabell, November 13, 2009.

In his current Asian trip, President Obama visits Japan, then addresses a forum of leaders in Singapore, and eventually ends up in Seoul to discuss nukes and North Korea. But make no mistake, the axis of this week is the time Obama will spend in China, which has catapulted to the forefront of international affairs and is on its way to joining the United States as the alpha and omega of the global economic system.

That China has emerged is secret to no one, but the consequences haven’t been fully integrated – either by the United States or by China. The level of intertwinement between the two economies has reached the point where they have effectively merged, forming what I’ve called an economic “superfusion.” But that fusion hasn’t yet altered political and cultural mindsets …  

… The issue for America going forward has little to do with China and everything to do with America. Can Americans rediscover the energy and innovation that brought such power and prosperity in the first place? Can the United States respond constructively to a changed global status that sees the rise of wealth and prosperity everywhere from Brazil to India to China? And can the U.S. government remove its collective head from the sand and act with the urgency that everything from climate change to economic competitiveness demand?

The problem of China for America is that it is a large but amorphous issue, unlike Afghanistan (do we send troops NOW?) or health care, with its endless and acrimonious battles in the beltway. There is no vote, or quick resolution or unitary policy that will “solve” China. That allows it to linger as a concern, but not to shape action.

So while Obama’s visit is important in form and a start, it cannot be a one-off, full of pomp and devoid of substance. Somehow, the United States must shake of the collective grogginess of Cold War, terrorism, financial crisis and inequalities and grapple with a world that is evolving and changing around us whether we like it or not. There is still time, but that clock is ticking and midnight is approaching. (full text).

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