The Perils of Ignoring China -- Teddy Roosevelt's Lessons for Obama

The American mission to Asia ended in failure. China pushed back against American lectures about democracy and trade. And Beijing’s mandarins smoldered in anger over America’s alliances with its Asian neighbors, which the Chinese viewed as military encirclement.

The president blamed the Chinese for the trade impasse while Beijing insisted that the problem was a U.S. domestic one and complained that America should stop lecturing China and trying to surround it militarily with neighboring alliances. Chinese leaders didn’t believe the president when he denied U.S. attempts to contain and manage China.

The young American president’s name was Theodore Roosevelt and the year was 1905. And with President Barack Obama’s recent mission to Asia one hundred and five years later, the world seems to be witnessing history repeating itself.

A fundamental misreading of China and its primacy in Asia doomed both the 1905 and 2010 missions. Roosevelt diminished and ignored China, instead linking the future of the United States in Asia with Britain and Japan.

The American electorate in 1905 was essentially anti-Chinese as it is in 2010, with the two presidents pursuing a strategy of loudly criticizing China’s trade policies while making alliances with smaller Asian countries to militarily encircle China. With Roosevelt’s secret encouragement, Japan expanded militarily onto the Asian continent as Britain saw their Asian empire collapse. Indeed, Roosevelt’s missteps in Asia lit the fuse on the problem we would later call World War II in the Pacific.

One would think that, a century later, the president would have a different understanding of China’s import—and Obama does. But unfortunately he seems to be using the same compass that misguided TR. While Roosevelt viewed China as a weak country on the decline, Obama sees the Middle Kingdom as a rising authoritarian state. And while Roosevelt dreamed of managing China’s descent, Obama imagines that he can manage China’s rise. Both positions are based on a profoundly ignorant sense of history.

Centuries ago, while Europe, Africa and the Americas were third-world poor, China was not only the most populated, wealthiest, and most sophisticated country in Asia, but on the planet. "The Travels of Marco Polo," published in 1295, told astonishing tales of enormous banquet rooms with a thousand seats, walls studded with precious stones, and consumers using paper money to purchase mass-printed books from well-stocked bookstores. (Marco Polo was so amazed by Chinese paper money that he devoted a chapter to it.) In Europe, monks hand-copied books while in China thousands of bestsellers rolled off modern printing presses.

China’s iron manufacturing industry produced one hundred twenty-five thousand tons a year—an amount not equaled the West until the twentieth century. Cast iron, the crank handle, deep drilling for natural gas, the belt drive, the fishing reel, chess, matches, brandy, gunpowder, playing cards, the spinning wheel, the umbrella, and countless other inventions—such were the products of China’s inventive genius.

Europeans would eventually borrow Chinese innovations like the plow and experience an agricultural revolution. Similarly, literacy spread as the Europeans exploited paper and printing, both Chinese inventions. The European industrial revolution was built atop Chinese technology.

But then China stumbled. Soon Western industrial war machines—mostly the British navy, but also navies and armies of the United States, Japan, Germany, Italy, France and other countries—sundered the Middle Kingdom, sending it into a period of decline, before Mao Zedong reclaimed China for the Chinese in 1949.

Mao’s horrific reign helped confirm in many Western minds that China was a backward, even primitive society, but those decades were cultural and technological exceptions. Roosevelt and his contemporaries found it very easy to ignore China’s cultural tradition by seeing the world though a prism in which “Aryans” were the only truly intelligent and productive “race.” Sadly, some of that racism and arrogance remains.

It seems profoundly difficult for American leaders to acknowledge some sort of cultural equivalency with the Chinese. The only way the Chinese can succeed, such logic goes, is via underhanded, uncivilized methods.

Like Roosevelt, Obama points the finger at the mandarins running the world’s second largest country, accusing them of manipulating U.S.-China trade. Yet the unspoken truth is that China is expert at doing what the president wants Americans to do: “discovering, creating and building the products that are sold all over the world.” Mr. Obama repeats the canard that China’s remarkable economic success is due to sinister currency deflation. (Referring to the renminbi, the president complained: “It is undervalued. And China spends enormous amounts of money intervening in the market to keep it undervalued.” )

But when the Federal Reserve recently announced it would purchase $600 billion dollars of U.S. treasury securities (QE2), the German finance minister observed: “What the U.S. accuses China of doing, the U.S.A. is doing by different means . . . it doesn’t add up when the Americans accuse the Chinese of currency manipulation and then, with the help of their central bank’s printing presses, artificially lower the value of the dollar.”

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai put it diplomatically: "It would be appropriate for someone to step forward and give us an explanation, otherwise international confidence in the recovery and growth of the global economy might be hurt." President Obama dodged the embarrassing truth and meekly responded, “From everything I can see, this decision was not one designed to have an impact on the currency, on the dollar.”

Beleaguered at the end of his failed mission, Mr. Obama said that he would make “no apologies for doing whatever I can” to bring jobs to the United States. In fact, American taxpayers are most certainly owed an apology.

The German finance minister offered the import-hungry United States some advice we might heed rather than bashing successful exporters: “Germany's exporting success is based on the increased competitiveness of our companies, not on some sort of currency sleight-of-hand. The USA lived off credit for too long, inflated its financial sector massively and neglected its industrial base. There are many reasons for America's problems—German export surpluses aren't one of them.”

And as he stumbled through Asia last week, The New York Times wrote that President Obama “left little doubt that he considered one country, China, the primary source of the problem.”

There is no doubt that China could pursue policies on several fronts that would be helpful for the global economy. China’s human rights record and relative lack of freedom work against it being perceived in a positive light. But the first and best step to dealing with China is to acknowledge it as an equal—not in terms of quantifiable statistics (indeed, on many of these measures America lags far behind China), but on the qualitative. Hopefully Barack Obama’s misreading of Asia will not have the disastrous long-term impact of Theodore Roosevelt’s.

James Bradley is the son of John Bradley, one of the men who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima. He is the author of "Flags of our Fathers" and "Flyboys." His most recent book is "The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War."