Sunday, July 17, 2011

The US Debt Ceiling: An Excuse for China's Irascibility?

Irascible, by Mel Bochner
Sensitivity – we all know the feeling. You just want to enjoy your iced tea on a hot and sunny day when a frosty wave of the cold sweetness rushes over an exposed root at the gum line. It’s a shocking, painful experience to be avoided at all cost.

As for emotional sensitivities, most socially adept humans try to avoid raising the ire of others, while those who are less socially adept often fall afoul of those sensitivities. For example, when a farmer complained to President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan on July 9 that the price of bananas was too low, thus making it difficult for farmers to make ends meet, Ma’s response of “你怎麼不早說” (Why didn’t you say something sooner?) was probably not the best way to handle the matter. The outburst that this response prompted clearly shows the danger of falling afoul of the sensitivities of others. One brief moment of insensitivity prompted the farmers to join with a group of other farmers decrying the issue of land seizures in a July 16 protest against the Ma government on Ketagalan Boulevard.

Of course, sensitivity can be excessive, and those who do develop a reputation for being overly sensitive are often ridiculed more than respected. Those who excessively express sensitivity as anger are referred to as “irascible”, a word with clear negative connotations (as in "an irascible old man"). Excessive sensitivity expressed using softer emotions is hardly better. Think of the result of the second wish that the devil fulfills for Brendan Fraser in the movie Bedazzled. Unable to do anything but sigh and cry, the overly sensitive, and therefore effeminate, Elliott (Fraser) turns off the love of his life, who gleefully joins the sand-kicking beach bully and his friends for a romp at his pad.

Clearly excessive sensitivity, whatever its manifestation, is not a desirable trait. So the willingness of politicians and the media to tiptoe around the Chinese government's sensitive tendencies is interesting indeed. My friend Michael Turton often blogs on this phenomenon (for example). Simply put, whether it’s over weapons sales to Taiwan, over support for a multilateral solution to the South China Sea dispute, over a visit by Xinjiang activist Rebiya Kadeer to Japan, over the seemingly constant worldwide circumambulation of the Dalai Lama, who met – against the backdrop of Chinese anger – with President Obama yesterday, or over one of a multitude of other issues, various China watchers often are quick to take note of Chinese anger and sensitivity. In fact, such emotions are usually expected and forgiven rather than challenged. It suffices to say that not one of the above articles goes so far as labeling the angry responses as irrational. (Actually, while each episode of anger is irrational, the angry approach as a whole is entirely rational for China if it gets other countries to do what China wants them to do. Needless to say, none of the above articles enters this territory either.)

In fact, the US presidents often play along by timing announcements of actions that might displease China for moments when China could be angered the least. This is always a challenge. After all, there are so many sensitive anniversaries in China, a legacy of the country’s National Humiliation Discourse as well as a variety of important events that have taken place during the rule of the CCP.

An incomplete list (including both positive and negative sensitive events from the perspective of the Chinese government) would include the beginnings of the Opium Wars in 1839 and 1856, the October 18, 1860 destruction of Yuanming Palace, the April 17, 1895 signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, the August 1900 invasion of China by eight nations to quell the Boxer Rebellion, the founding of the CCP on July 1, 1921, the September 18, 1931 Japanese invasion, the Nanjing Massacre following the fall of the city in December of 1937, the founding of the PRC on October 1, 1949, the entry of Chinese troops into Lhasa in October 1951, the March 1959 Tibet uprising, the incident that never happened in that square in central Beijing despite the existence of plenty of eyewitness accounts and footage in June 1989, the April 2008 Tibet uprising and the July 2009 unrest in Kashgar. Heaven forbid anyone do anything to anger the Chinese during the anniversary of one of those sensitive moments. 

And, of course, we cannot forget the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics or the run-ups to any of the party congresses. Then there are the visits. Barack Obama goes to China. Hu Jintao goes to the US. Biden goes to China. Xi Jinping goes to the US, etc. We couldn't have the Chinese cancel one of those visits in anger, now could we?

Clearly, almost every month of the year and almost every year of every decade contains sensitive anniversaries. And if there are no anniversaries scheduled, new sensitive events are always in the works. If the US is to avoid every sensitive date, there will be no way to avoid "angering" China at a bad time. It’s a bad time all the time.

One would think that, faced with such a full calendar of sensitive dates, anyone would want to shy away from creating more. Anyone, that is, except for careless journalists. Apparently not content with the multitude of prickly moments that US policymakers must navigate when dealing with China, Jeff Mason and Ben Blanchard, writing for Reuters, have felt it necessary to create one more. Commenting on China's angry reaction to the latest meeting of President Obama with the Dalai Lama, the authors state:

Obama's meeting came at an extra sensitive moment for China, the United States' biggest creditor, with leaders in Washington at odds over how to raise the $14.3 trillion U.S. debt ceiling in time to avoid default.

Although I know very well that the Chinese do not want the value of their US treasuries to fall and that a US default might cause this result to come to pass, I wonder at what point the US debt ceiling negotiations became an issue that could prevent us from dealing plainly with the Chinese government? China is not required to purchase US treasuries. If the US does default on its debt, China will simply be the unfortunate victim of its own poor investment decision. Yet Mason and Blanchard would have us believe that Chinese anger is more justified now because of Chinese anxiety over the value of Chinese assets? 

Can any one tell me at what point we can stop making excuses for the irascible man?

No comments:

Post a Comment