Fading Empire

It's an amazing thing to behold, the recent sputtering outrage from the world-improving pundit class when it comes to China.  In particular, they seem to think the repressive regime in Burma is a Chinese cat's paw, and they're positively furious.

Uber-World Improver Tom Friedman hasn't weighed in on this yet (as far as I know), but Friedman wannabe and Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt has:

And here's something else I would do: Tell China that, as far as the United States is concerned, it can have its Olympic Games or it can have its regime in Burma. It can't have both.

What on earth is Hiatt proposing?  Some sort of preemptive action on the part of the U.S. military to prevent the staging of the Games in Beijing?  Or does he just mean a U.S. boycott?  Does he not remember Jimmy Carter's refusal to send the U.S. team to Moscow in 1980?  A lot of good that did; the Soviets hung around Afghanistan for nine more years. 

No matter.  Pundit-class world improvers Steve and Cokie Roberts are of much the same mind:

China's enormous economic and military power makes it largely immune from international opinion. But not entirely. There is one thing it wants desperately: a trouble-free Olympic Games next year. That's where China is vulnerable, so that's the pressure point the international community has to use. A threat to boycott the games could be the only way to get the attention of Beijing's commissars.

Unfortunately, President Bush has already agreed to attend the games, but in Europe, open talk of an Olympic boycott is growing louder. As Edward McMillan-Scott, the vice president of the European Parliament, told Reuters: "China is the puppet master of Burma (and) the Olympics is the only real lever we have to make China act. The civilized world must seriously consider shunning China by using the Beijing Olympics to send the clear message that such abuses of human rights are not acceptable."

Is China really the puppet master in Burma?  China's not even Burma's biggest trading partner, as is often misreported.  Blake Hounshell at Passport consulted the CIA World Factbook and found an amazing, well, fact:  The #1 destination for Burmese exports is Thailand.  And while China's the #1 source of Burmese imports, China accounts for less than 40% of the total.  But leave the numbers aside.  As Hounshell points out:

Sure, China could cut off its weapons sales, but the junta would find other willing sellers. Do people really want China to cut off its exports of "fabric, petroleum products, fertilizer, plastics, machinery, transport equipment; cement, construction materials, crude oil; food products, edible oil" to the Burmese? The already impressive black market would simply expand.

But here's the bigger point:  The notion of Washington squeezing China so that Beijing will squeeze Burma rests on a faulty, indeed ludicrous, assumption: That the United States still calls the shots around the world.  Steve Clemons at The Washington Note reminds us that's no longer the case.  And in any number of instances, it's China filling the vacuum:

As we have been distracted in Iraq, China has rolled out aid and development programs globally, helped institute yet another Asian multilateral effort in its "East Asian Community" initiative, launched a multilateral security organization in the "Shanghai Cooperation Organization", and was the key factor in the recent negotiating successes with North Korea over its nuclear program…

While much of the world perceives — at best — America as a status quo power but more realistically as a superpower in decline that will eventually look something like a well-endowed military state and more as an ordinary great power — that same world looks at China as an ascending power. China's weight gains in global affairs matters.

Oh, and as Clemons pointed out in an interview with the New York Times, it was China's intercession that convinced Tehran to release the Iranian-American scholars it had arrested earlier this year.  But I don't think the China bashers will take note of that; they're too busy fulminating against their bogeyman du jour, proceeding on the assumption that our teetering Empire of Debt still reigns supreme across the globe.