China and the State of the Union

Commentary | January 26, 2011

The U.S. State of the Union address is a good annual barometer of America’s aspirations and apprehensions.  For about an hour every January, the president of the United States shares with Congress and the American people his assessment of America’s successes, “areas for improvement” – somehow, presidents never quite seem to speak of failures – and, most importantly, the major challenges confronting the nation and the president’s ideas as to what to do about them.

If the 2011 State of the Union is any indicator, it would appear that the nation posing the most profound long-term challenge to the United States is China.

Of course, it is no surprise that China would garner some mention in this year’s address.  After all, China is the world’s second largest economy, one of America’s top trading partners, a rising military power, and a key player on a number of regional and global issues of critical concern to the United States, including North Korea, Iran, and climate change.  What’s more, the address came on the heels of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s high-profile state visit to Washington.  So it’s no wonder that China was on the president’s mind.

What was striking, however, was the context in which China was, and wasn’t, invoked.  Obama’s address was principally about the intense economic competition the United States now faces, and this was the context in which Obama repeatedly mentioned China.  Obama told the American people that China is “educating its children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science”; “investing in research and new technologies”; “home to the world’s largest private solar research facility and the world’s fastest computer”; and “building faster trains and newer airports.”  At the risk of mixing Soviet-era metaphors, as Americans are poised to embrace what Obama termed “our generation’s Sputnik moment,” it would appear that China is burying us.

The fact that China figured so prominently in the competitiveness section of President Obama’s address – the very heart of the speech – rather than in the shorter foreign policy section toward the end of the speech (where there wasn’t a single mention of China) seems to represent a significant departure in how the president himself views the China challenge and how he is framing and articulating that challenge for the American people.  It is as if China has “graduated” from being a mere foreign policy problem – lumped in with pedestrian concerns like al-Qaeda, Iran’s nuclear program, and tensions on the Korean peninsula – to the status of existential competitive threat to America’s continued economic primacy and, indeed, even viability.  All other challenges – even America’s hot war in Afghanistan – pale in comparison; in the speech, Afghanistan earned just one mention to China’s four.

President Obama’s State of the Union references to the stiff competition China poses to the United States were just a more eloquent expression of a sentiment that has begun to seep into American discourse on China in unexpected places.  A few weeks ago, in response to the NFL’s unusual decision to postpone by two days a Sunday night match-up between the Philadelphia Eagles and the visiting Minnesota Vikings on account of blizzard-like conditions, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, echoing the words of a Philadelphia blogger, lamented, “We’ve become a nation of wusses.  The Chinese are kicking our butt in everything.  If this was in China, do you think the Chinese would have called off the game?  People would have been marching down to the stadium… doing calculus on the way down.”

Talk about hitting us where it hurts.

Clearly, China has gotten under our collective skin.  It’s become a kind of Rorschach inkblot for the American people.  In it, we see our anxieties, fears and inadequacies.  We see people marching through snow drifts doing calculus problems on their way to watch a football game – in a country that doesn’t play football.

And, perhaps, we begin to understand that the real threat to our nation’s economic future comes from within.

David J. Firestein is vice president of the EastWest Institute, a foreign policy think tank.  He has taught U.S.-China relations at the University of Texas.