Back in prehistory, during the Cold War, students of Kremlinology - the arcane science and art of trying to unravel what Winston Churchill called “a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” - identified a dangerous heresy. “Mirror-imaging,” it was called, defined as attributing to Moscow our own motivations, rather than understanding a Soviet communist leadership who lived in a completely different world and dreamed different dreams.
In a sense, it was what Sigmund Freud called “projection,” a psychological defense whereby an individual “projects” his own thoughts, motivations, desires and feelings onto someone else. In the Soviet case, the West collectively - hoping against hope - often tried to see Moscow’s actions as an expression of a common desire for peace and stability. Alas, that was rarely the case, especially after Josef Stalin’s failed self-serving maneuvers in the mid-1930s to block Nazi Germany.
All this came to mind with a recent Obama administration “leak” announcing that Vice President Joseph R. Biden would take over “the China portfolio.” Insiders said Mr. Biden would oversee America’s multifaceted relations with Beijing, ultimately taking final responsibility for issues previously handled by the secretaries of state, Treasury and defense. It didn’t take long for the lickspittle camp followers of the huge U.S. China trade lobby, who apparently first flew this kite, to bring it back to earth. No, Mr. Biden hasn’t quite become the “assistant president” in the mold of Dick Cheney in the Bush II administration, and he would not be taking over “China,” just kibitzing.
But one can’t help speculating on the origins of this little Washington circus.
For some months, it’s been clear with continuing Middle East disasters - with admittedly much of the debris having been inherited from earlier times and administrations - the Obama White House wanted the country to look further east for its major foreign policy initiatives. A fawning media fell in line. That was despite the growing disappointment over President Obama’s earlier Muslim outreach, the escalating Iran crisis, the unanticipated subversion of the Arab Spring, troubled relations with major ally Israel and the messy withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Still, China looms ever larger. There are huge, unresolved economic issues in a time when the economy is front and center - Beijing’s still-growing hoard of dollars, clashes over the value of the yuan, billions of dollars in stolen American intellectual property and the blocking of American imports, to name just a few. But the increasing bellicosity of the Chinese military - and a lashing-out at the U.S. by Le Keqiang, now in line to be China’s next prime minister - point to what might well be America’s top foreign policy concern in the longer term.
With cavalier aplomb - given what’s generally perceived as America’s overextended position abroad and empty treasury at home - Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton added to the tensions when she threw down the gauntlet in Southeast Asia. With the “Vietnam syndrome” long forgotten, Mrs. Clinton announced that Washington would back China’s Southeast Asian neighbors in attempting to fend off Beijing’s outrageous claims to South China Sea oil and gas and to dominance of one of the world’s most strategic waterways. Yes, it was only a restatement of America’s post-World War II Western Pacific hegemony and a renewal of the U.S. Navy’s pledge to maintain freedom of the seas. Still ….
As best one can calculate - motivation is always the most dangerous speculation - some administration geopolitical genius latched on to the coincidence that Mr. Biden was the U.S. vice president and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, is supposedly tapped in this fall’s succession to succeed retiring President Hu Jintao. So, wouldn’t it be jolly for our vice president to get to know China’s vice president, establish a personal relationship and enhance understanding and cooperation as we set off into the sunset? Kumbaya!
But Beijing’s politics are, if anything, more byzantine than Washington’s - and far more opaque. Mr. Xi has repeatedly stumbled, despite his close “lips and teeth” relationship to Mr. Hu, in his scramble for the triple throne heading the party, military and government. Despite Mr. Biden’s claims to proletarian origins, they are hardly a match for the “princeling” Mr. Xi’s background: His father was a Communist Party founder who incurred Mao Zedong’s wrath, condemning his teenage son to seven years of “exile” at hard labor in a poverty-stricken, semidesert village.
Whatever their curriculum vitae, dreaming up a buddy relationship between Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi as a solution to the troubled U.S.-Chinese relations is, indeed, preposterous. The little soap opera proves, if it were it not already self-evident, that the “lessons” of the Cold War lie buried somewhere in the Library of Congress - with, one surmises, no remnant copies on file at the CIA.
• Sol Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and blogs at www.yeoldecrabb.wordpress.com.