In a few weeks, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will be reinaugurated with great fanfare in Washington. Soon after that, in Beijing, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang will ascend to the presidency and premiership of China. (China's premier is the second-highest office but, unlike the American vice president, is more like the country's chief operating officer, with the president as chief executive officer.) If our political leaders would play their cards right, the concomitant inaugurations could be prelude to a brilliant new start for our relationship with China.
But I doubt it, because soon after the inaugurations, the tedious process of Senate confirmation hearings for Cabinet positions will begin. As usual, most attention will focus on the three big jobs, the secretaries of treasury, state and defense. Given the nation's current mood, when the nominees are grilled about their views, I'm sure each in turn will express a strong degree of indignation toward China, especially regarding its currency and its military. To be sure, these issues are important and must be addressed, but I highly doubt bellicosity does much to help. Such tough talk will probably help the nominees win their Cabinet positions -- but surely won't build any ties with China.
That'll be quite a shame. Our business leaders know well that although China is an aspiring superpower, it is not the Soviet Union, and this is not the Cold War. You won't hear them second the opinions we'll surely hear from our Cabinet nominees. That's because they fully realize the opportunity that China presents. Just last month, a study released by the Boston Consulting Group concluded that China will have 280 million affluent consumers by 2020. A potential market of affluent consumers nearly the size of the U.S. population is enough to make any CEO salivate. So might we, if we appreciated the opportunity this could afford us to pull us back to economic growth.
To the Cabinet nominees, I say this: China may have its problems, but a suicidal tendency is not one of them. Like any country, it acts in its own interests. This may sometimes put the Chinese at odds with other countries, but it does not mean they seek confrontation -- especially not with the United States. And everyone in China over 20 can do a very quick before-and-after comparison of living conditions over the past two decades. It's no contest which period comes out ahead. I'm not aware of any culture in which not eating is preferable to eating. And the Chinese well know that the great American market has been substantially responsible for their current banquet.
In turn, their market could be quite a banquet for us. Two factoids might provide perspective about the size of Chinese markets. If little Wu and young Jiang would be particularly diligent in their foreign language studies, China could very quickly also have the largest English-speaking population in the world, too. Never heard that, did you? But even a quarter of a 1.4 billion population equals a whopping big number. Moreover, Christians (including Catholics) in China already outnumber Christians in Italy. Surprising? Sure. But a number like 1.4 billion can do things like that.
Of course, economic considerations are not the only ones of importance. But surely not every issue regarding China is a matter of national security. Let's not treat every one of them as if they were. There's an ancient Chinese proverb (which I may have just made up) that if you treat someone like an enemy, he'll become one.
Do we want an inimical relationship with our most important business partner -- and the one, frankly, that we need the most as we struggle to climb out of recession?
Michael Justin Lee is a lecturer in the Department of Finance and the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Maryland. Contact him at www.michaeljustinlee.com. He wrote this for the Baltimore Sun.