Pity poor George W. Bush. Already under fire from some quarters for his decision to attend the Olympic Games in Beijing, he drew more fire for keeping his harshest words for China out of his speeches in Beijing, and more fire still for being in Beijing and “out of the loop” for the sudden Russian invasion of Georgia. For many, just more proof that W is a bumbling fool.

But in reference to both China and Russia, it’s really Bush’s foes who are foolish, and W who really understands what is needed. Whether we like it or not, the world is currently geopolitically divided into four power blocks: the United States, Russia, China, and everyone else. The European Union and Japan can compete economically (though each is less of a competitor than either seems to realize) but lack any credible military power projection. The rest of the world may have armies, but has neither the economic might nor the infrastructure to really project them. Like it or hate it, at the present time the US really only has two rivals for hegemony: Russia and China.

And since 1972, the United States has conducted a long, slow, steady dance which has slowly but steadily transformed the People’s Republic of China from an insular, xenophobic rival into an engaged, cosmopolitan economic partner. The PRC remains an autocratic state run by a cabal which can be brutal but which, increasingly, hides its iron fist in a velvet glove. Most importantly, the PRC’s leadership has adopted a nearly explicit bargain with its people: in return for your obedience we will deliver you prosperity. This means that the PRC has little choice but to grant a growing class of wealthy capitalists and prosperous businessmen increasing freedom of action. While these classes may be largely apolitical, they will make increasing demands for their own personal, economic, and social freedom. And the Chinese will have to either deliver or watch the prosperity they need vanish.

Sadly, since 1992, Russia has taken an opposite course: clawing its way out of Communist tyranny only to fall into the worst excesses of kleptocracy and crony capitalism. As China has been building economic freedom, Russia has been reducing it—limiting wealth and influence to a tiny class of criminal overlords and political cronies. And while the Chinese leaders increasingly choose to conceal their true power, Vladimir Putin has been steadily accumulating the trappings and practice of the Czars of old. And now, at long last, he has taken up the favorite Czarist pastime: gobbling up vulnerable neighbors on the most transparent of pretenses.

Unfortunately, much as we might like to, we simply can’t afford to meet such Russian aggression openly on the battlefield. Any large direct confrontation between American and Russian forces must result in either many, many Russian soldiers killed by American weapons or vice-versa. And that means that in any such confrontation, the specter of nuclear retaliation cannot be avoided. No matter how unlikely, the very thought of nuclear escalation must give us pause, especially against someone with Putin’s sociopathic patterns. Yet we cannot allow Russia to simply crush sovereign nations without limit or reprisal.

So the Administration’s strategy of avoiding rattling the saber in favor of threatening credible economic and political reprisals makes sense. As does the Administration’s willingness to allow the Russians to save face after what was, after all, a profoundly stupid move by the Georgians. And a move done in clear opposition to the consistent advice and counsel of the United States. No matter what provocations Russia engaged in—and the evidence is building that they all but directed separatist attacks—Georgia’s overwhelming military response targeting Russian “peacekeepers” directly was the worst possible response. And one which greatly limited American ability to back the Georgians.

But, as long as Russian aggression can be contained by a strong and unified stance by the US and its allies, then in the long run, Russia is the less important concern. Drunk with oil profits, and headed by a burgeoning Napolean, Russia is an important short-term threat. But it is also an aging nation with a declining population, crumbling infrastructure, and rampant corruption. In the long run, it is energetic China, with its huge population, exploding economy, and tremendous optimism which will be the great rival or the great partner of the United States. Bush can’t afford to ignore or underestimate Russia, but he knows that China deserves the greater attention.

The greater attention, and the greater respect. China remains a nation with oppressive laws, cavalier treatment of certain basic human rights, and problematic limits to the rule of law with respect to senior government and military officials. But it has also made almost unbelievable strides in a very short time. Beijing in 1988 was not a place many Westerners, much less many businessmen, would have chosen to live in. Beijing in 1998 had seen vast improvement, but still had much to do. The Beijing of 2008 has become a vibrant place of commerce, prosperity, and genuine cosmopolitan life. The limits on personal freedom remain, but have become largely unimportant for daily life: more Singapore than Communist China. Serious problems remain, but the urban centers of China of today are far more similar to those of Korea or Japan than most would have predicted even a decade ago.

So W was right when he expressed his strategy to Bob Costas in a brief, but frank interview. To influence China we must remain engaged with China. And to remain engaged with China, we must show clearly that we respect China and her recent accomplishments. To be sure, we must continue to use that relationship to urge reform and liberty, but we don’t have to slap the Chinese in the face during their big moment. Instead, we can do exactly what W did: call clear attention to the problems but keep the greater focus on the positive changes in China and the decades-old Sino-American relationship that has helped to produce them.

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