Pro­fessor of Polit­ical Sci­ence Suzanne Ogden, an expert on China, dis­cusses its changing power rela­tion­ships with United States and the need for greater sub­tlety in our approach to a range of “China” issues.

Thirty years ago, China and the United States were just begin­ning to estab­lish trade and eco­nomic rela­tions. Now the two coun­tries are eco­nom­i­cally inter­de­pen­dent. What led to this dra­matic shift?

Since 1979, the com­bi­na­tion of policy reforms that moved China away from a socialist com­mand economy toward a market economy, plus sub­stan­tial for­eign direct invest­ment in China, laid the foun­da­tion for China’s rapid growth.

As the United States con­tinued to import sub­stan­tially more than it exported to China, and simul­ta­ne­ously devel­oped a huge budget deficit, the Chi­nese bought U.S. trea­sury bills so we could under­write our debt—and our Chi­nese imports. This depen­dency on China to buy our debt has been exac­er­bated by a need for the U.S. gov­ern­ment to fund the stim­ulus package to address the severe recession.

What is the instant snap­shot on Pres­i­dent Obama’s visit to China? Will it be looked at as suc­cessful? Why or why not?

Pres­i­dent Obama’s visit was a suc­cess; but it needs to be seen in the con­text of a rela­tion­ship in which Amer­ican pres­i­dents have been going to China since Pres­i­dent Nixon first went in 1972. The major pur­pose of this trip was to reflect Obama’s effort to treat China as an equal partner in addressing the world’s prob­lems, rather than as a country to be hec­tored about improving its human rights record or reval­u­ating its currency.

I hap­pened to be in Shanghai when Obama was there, and from stu­dents to taxi dri­vers to Com­mu­nist Party offi­cials, there seemed to be uni­versal delight in his visit. You might say there is a bit of Obama-​​mania there, with his image worked into paint­ings, sculp­ture, T-​​shirts and teacups.

What are the most divi­sive issues between the United States and China at present?

Because of the eco­nomic inter­de­pen­dency of the two coun­tries, the United States is in no posi­tion to fuss about most issues that roiled the rela­tion­ship in the past. The Obama admin­is­tra­tion wants China to help as a respected partner in man­aging major eco­nomic and finan­cial issues, as well as cli­mate change chal­lenges. Nev­er­the­less, if there is one con­cern, it is China’s efforts to invest in and gain con­trol over nat­ural resources in var­ious parts of the world; but there is little we can do to stop these invest­ments, which really differ from our own only in that they are usu­ally done by state-​​owned enter­prises.

Given China’s cur­rent eco­nomic power and our debtor-​​nation status, what leverage does the United States have in get­ting them to change poli­cies with which we disagree?

We have very little leverage at this point, except to the degree we can con­vince China that what we want it to do is in its own inter­ests as well.

Are we wit­nessing an inex­orable shift in world power, from the United States to China?

The his­tory of the rise of powers has shown that the “energy” of civ­i­liza­tions has steadily moved over time. As recently as the 20th cen­tury, after all, power shifted from Europe to the United States. China is decid­edly a rising power, but so far it has shown no interest in wasting resources by asserting mil­i­tary power that would chal­lenge the Amer­ican mil­i­tary predominance.

Like Japan after World War II, China knows it can get almost every­thing it wants through eco­nomic and finan­cial instru­ments, as well as “soft power”—diplomacy, edu­ca­tional and cul­tural exchanges—without firing a single shot.

Regard­less, we cannot say the shift in world power is “inex­orable,” as we cannot pre­dict any one single event or series of events that might trigger insta­bility and/​or eco­nomic decline in China.