Chronicling the Rise of a New Superpower: China

NPR's Scott Simon talks with Ted Fishman about President Bush's visit to China. Fishman, a writer for The New York Times Magazine, is the author of China, Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, seniors try to decipher the new Medicare plan, but first, President Bush's arrived on the last leg of his trip to Asia in China, the nation that is at once the US' fastest-growing trading partner, the second-largest holder of US dollars and a key ally in trying to reduce the nuclear threat of North Korea, but China's rapid economic and military expansion also make it a natural potential rival for the US and that can make for a complicated relationship. Ted Fishman is the author of "China, Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World." He's a writer for The New York Times Magazine and joins us.

Mr. Fishman, thanks for being with us.

Mr. TED FISHMAN ("China, Inc."): Glad to be with you.

SIMON: And press accounts have it that at the top of President Bush's agenda is to try and persuade the Chinese to float the yuan, their currency. What would that do from the US point of view?

Mr. FISHMAN: Floating the yuan would provide relief to American industry in one key way.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. FISHMAN: It would make the Chinese currency more expensive against the American dollar. And that means that goods that come in from China would be more expensive. China's low-cost manufacturing machine would not be so low cost. And American goods would cost less in the Chinese market.

SIMON: How likely is it you think the Chinese would agree to do this? What's in it for them?

Mr. FISHMAN: I think it's quite unlikely. China has an economic agenda which is to create a great export machine and it's on its way to doing this and it's doing a great job. It also has about 800 million farmers in the country who are among the lowest paid workers in the whole world. If the Chinese currency were 40 percent more expensive and American farm goods and the goods from Brazil and the former Soviet Union, in other places that are great farm producers, came in with farm products that were 40 percent cheaper than they are today, it would overwhelm China's agricultural population.

SIMON: Former US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky and Edward Gresser wrote a piece in The Wall Street Journal not long ago that said the US was--by concentrating on small kind of tangible trade issues, was missing what amounts to a revolution. I think they called it mistaking the foothills for the Himalayas.

Mr. FISHMAN: Well, there are two different scenarios here for Bush's visit. One is that he takes a cue from the rest of the world's leaders that go to China and sign billion-dollar deals with the business executives in tow. You know, this is what the governors from American states do. Schwarzenegger's in China doing it now. The governor of Minnesota is going to do it next week. Or he could take this line that is more in line with his foreign policy which is to push democracy, non-proliferation, some resolution with Taiwan, the war on terror, human rights and so on, but if he does that, he's behind where business is. Business has already kind of come to terms with China, and the local officials, the trade association officials, this mass of people who's always finding a way to China, has already made peace with the Chinese regime and doesn't mind the politics so much. They want connections that will bring deals.

And when Bush describes our relationship with China as a complicated one--I think you've made reference to that--you know, he's exactly right. The problem is when you go into China with this very complicated picture, you can't give the Chinese a view of what American policy is towards China because right now it looks like we're just confused.

SIMON: Mr. Fishman, what do you think about this--what seems to be an increasingly confident historical projection that, at one point or another, the US and China become rivals in a hundred different areas all over the globe because they're each competing for resources, they're each competing for revenue, they're each competing in a sense for friends and allies?

Mr. FISHMAN: We are rivals. The question is: Does that rivalry come to blows or does it just stay an economic rivalry? You know, China has ambitions for its region just as any country would, especially any large country. Right now, for example, you know, there's only one Pacific military power in the world and that's the United States, but the Pacific is China's geographic realm, and it's probably not a situation that China would put up with for long. It also has energy demands, and those energy demands will more likely be met in its own region than spread across the globe. And, you know, China is building a military. It's building a military that it hopes one day will be commensurate with its economic might and its position in the world.

SIMON: But the purpose of that military would be obviously to protect China's borders, but anticipating that they won't get a challenge on that, do they have ambitions to project it to secure resources elsewhere in the world?

Mr. FISHMAN: You know, I can only predict not based on the nature of the Chinese people or the nature of the Chinese political system but on what great powers always want to do, and I'm afraid we have to conclude based on the history of the world is that all great powers want to project their force into their region, protect their sea lines, get resources at prices that are favorable to them, and I don't think the Chinese can expect it to be any different.

SIMON: Ted Fishman writes for The New York Times magazine. He's author of "China, Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Super Power Challenges America and the World."

Mr. Fishman, thanks very much.

Mr. FISHMAN: My pleasure. Thank you.

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