Magazine article Foreign Policy in Focus

World Beat: After Osama: China?

Magazine article Foreign Policy in Focus

World Beat: After Osama: China?

Article excerpt

If the killing of Osama bin Laden were a Hollywood murder mystery, the shootout scene in Abbottabad would be followed by the unveiling of the sponsor who arranged for the al-Qaeda safe house. Is it the Pakistani intelligence officer who appears early in the movie to assure his U.S. counterparts that he is fully committed to bringing bin Laden to justice? Is it the Saudi construction magnate who owes several major favors to the bin Laden family? Or perhaps it's the U.S. embassy official who, it might turn out, believes that Osama is more useful alive than dead--until finally, he is useful no longer.

Who could possibly benefit from the care and feeding of the al-Qaeda legend? Audiences know to look for the suspect who benefits the most. The more intricate the conspiracy the better.

As the Navy SEALs dispose of bin Laden's body at sea, we follow the simultaneous action in Islamabad where bin Laden's secret sponsor is sitting in an office, back turned to the camera, passing over a final payment to the safe house owner. The music builds. It's hard to pinpoint the sponsor's accent. And then the camera pulls back and we realize that the action is taking place in an embassy. The flag on the wall, the sentries posted out front, and finally the placard with the embassy's name: The People's Republic of China.

Of course, bin Laden's death was not a Hollywood movie, however much the Obama administration presented it as such (the brave soldiers, the cowardly villain, the suspenseful hunt). And China has no love for al-Qaeda, particularly given its own battles against alleged terrorists in Xinjiang and elsewhere.

But perhaps the only country in the world that has benefited from the last decade of war against al-Qaeda is China, and it has benefitted big time. Beijing has watched the United States spend more than $3 trillion on the war on terrorism, devote its military resources to the Middle East, and neglect pretty much every other part of the globe (except where al-Qaeda and its friends hang out). The United States is now mired in debt, stuck in a recession, and paralyzed by partisan politics.

Over that same period, meanwhile, China has quickly become the second largest economy in the world. In 2001, Goldman Sachs predicted that the Chinese economy would rival that of Germany by 2011. Boy, was that a lowball estimate. Last month, the International Monetary Fund looked again into the crystal ball and announced that the Chinese economy would become the world's largest in 2016.

China's overtaking of the United States "will effectively end the 'Age of America' a decade before most analysts had expected," writes David Gardner in the British Daily Mail. "It means that whoever wins the 2012 presidential election will have the dubious honor of presiding over the fall of the United States."

Memo from Beijing: Mission Accomplished!

Naturally, since this is no movie, it's not so cut and dried. As demonstrated by its huge investments into this country--including $45 billion worth of deals back in January--China doesn't want a bankrupt United States. Indeed, U.S. budget deficits and low interest rates have fueled global inflation, driving up food prices and creating precisely the kind of instability that makes China uncomfortable. Beijing needs American consumers, the relative security of American bonds, and the occasional stability provided by American troops. But remember: all of that can be provided by the world's second leading economy and number one military spender.

The Obama administration is well aware of these trends. Indeed, as National Security Advisor Tom Donilon recently told Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker, the United States should be refocusing on Asia. "One of Donilon's overriding beliefs, which Obama adopted as his own, was that America needed to rebuild its reputation, extricate itself from the Middle East and Afghanistan, and turn its attention toward Asia and China's unchecked influence in the region. …

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