[Viewpoint] The challenge for Obama and Hu

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[Viewpoint] The challenge for Obama and Hu

A blog post satirizing the wealth gap in China was widely popular among Chinese netizens last year. The writer calculated how many years a person would have to save to buy a decent apartment in Beijing. To buy a 100-square-meter (1,076-square-foot) apartment at the average cost of 3 million yuan ($453,798), a farmer would have had to begun saving from the 10th century, a blue-collar worker would have had to work overtime on a factory line from 1840, and a prostitute would have had to receive 10,000 clients a day from the age of 18 until she turned 46.

The equation didn’t include the cost of interior design, furniture or appliances and electronics. The widening of the wealth gap has far outpaced economic growth in China.

The two superpowers, the United States and China, have been dominating world news. But the people in those countries are in distress. Americans are muddling along as their government prints dollars to keep the economy moving, and China’s social fissures are loosely papered over and masked by a glittering facade of economic success.

It remains unclear how long the Chinese economy can keep up its current pace. China has nearly worn out an economic engine constructed along unique socialist development lines. A former senior central bank official warned that the economy could quickly lose steam if authorities do not implement radical economic and political reforms as soon as possible.

The economy’s galloping pace is sustained by state construction projects that have been blamed for rampant under-the-table corruption between government officials and business contractors, which widens social inequalities. And that phenomenon has been noted with concern by the state-run newspaper, the People’s Daily.

The United States and China both have serious domestic problems. Instead of waging a war of influence against each other, they should admit to their weaknesses and seek a symbiotic relationship. The two countries are already so closely interdependent that a crisis in one will produce fallout in the other. The world economy is susceptible to the way the Sino-U.S. relationship develops, which is why the world’s attention is on President Hu Jintao’s historic visit to Washington on Jan. 19.

Ian Morris, history professor at Stanford University, wrote “Why the West Rules - For Now,” about the shift of power and wealth from the West to the East. He believes that in a century the differences between the West and East will be meaningless because of technological development and globalization.

Morris highlights the conflicts and wars of the 19th and 20th centuries that came about because the rulers of great powers in relative decline didn’t understand that the tide of history was turning against them. The historian advises the leaders of the United States and China to learn from history and try to ensure that the rise of the East in the 21st century won’t be as violent as the earlier rise of the West. Obama and Hu must seriously discuss broad outlines and directions for the economic and political order of the 21st century in their upcoming summit.

The United States can finally shake off the burden of being the world’s policeman and instead turn its attention inward. It should shave defense spending to help restore the economy: one country’s defense spending exceeds the rest of the world’s combined spending, and it’s six times more than the second largest military power, China. Washington would have leverage to call for similar action from Beijing if it scales back its defense spending. The two countries also inevitably have to address the trade imbalance and currency problems.

The explosiveness of the situation on the Korean Peninsula has been underscored by last year’s events - the Cheonan sinking and the Yeonpyeong attack. If North Korea strikes again, the region may turn into a full-scale combat zone. A war in the region would be catastrophic for not only the two Koreas, but their respective allies, the United States and China.

North Korea has already begun enriching uranium, which can be used to produce new nuclear weapons. Washington and Beijing must present ways to resolve the nuclear situation and tension on the peninsula. The two can initiate six-party negotiations to discuss broad issues, from denuclearization, normalization of ties between North Korea and the United States, economic aid, and ways to ensure peace in return for a fixed moratorium on the North’s nuclear program.

Drawing ideological lines is an outdated legacy of the Cold War. The two superpowers must seek a different path of cooperation and symbiosis for the benefit of the world. China and the United States ended 30 years of confrontation and normalized ties when Deng Xiaoping visited Washington in January 1979. We anticipate equally monumental news from Washington in January 2011.

*The writer is an editorial writer of JoongAng Ilbo.

By Bae Myung-bok
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