The world’s most important relationship

Earlier this week, as the US returned President Barack Obama to the White House for another four-year term, China’s Communist Party gathered in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing to orchestrate a once-in-a-decade leadership transition.

The world’s great superpowers, economic and military, renewed themselves and their very different administrations in very different ways.

Americans, Democrat or Republican, are happy that their leader was chosen after a democratic vote, though whether a process that cost something north of $2bn can be truly democratic is doubtful. This extraordinary expenditure has been mocked by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who called the election a “battleground for capitalists” and suggested “democracy has become a system where the minority rules over the majority”. It should worry any democrat that Ahmadinejad’s assertion cannot be dismissed easily.

The Communist Party, or whatever passes for communism today, picks their man and that’s it. Despite growing social unrest rooted in inequality China’s population of 1.34bn will be told, as they have been for millennia, who their new leaders will be. Xi Jinping, who visited Ireland in February, is expected to be named leader.

His elevation is expected at a congress opened with a 100-minute speech by outgoing president Hu Jintao who warned that corruption threatened the party and China. Unfortunately his colleague, retiring premier Wen Jiabao, is fighting accusations that his family amassed a $2.7bn fortune during his time in high office. Wen, as is so often the case, cast himself as a reformer determined to stamp out corruption.

Naturally, two so very different systems throw up very different results and emphasis.

In the US more women than men voted — 53% of the vote — and an unprecedented number of female representatives were elected, including the first openly gay senator, the first Asian-American female senator, and the first female military veteran wounded in combat. Massachusetts elected its first female senator, and New Hampshire will be the first state to send an all-female delegation to Congress. Symbolically, white men will not constitute the majority of the Democratic House caucus.

In China, women are virtually unknown at the highest levels of government though one woman, Liu Yandong, may be given a seat on the new Politburo Standing Committee. Her elevation would not signal great change, however, as she comes from a family of the Communist Party elite. That she might be given a seat, rather than be elected to it, marks another great difference between the superpowers.

These differences can sometimes be so great, so difficult to reconcile that the rest of the world must sometimes look on with bated breath as these two modern Goliaths circle each other, protecting or advancing their own national interests.

In the Pacific, America is firmly aligned with Japan at a moment when Japan and China see a resurgence of old animosities. In his first term President Obama moved considerable military resources to the region to reassure America’s allies. As China becomes wealthier it becomes more assertive and buys up ever greater quantities of the world’s natural resources.

This gathering momentum suggests that the relationship between President Obama and Xi Jinping, if he is appointed, is the most important one in the world. Let us all hope it is a benign, functional, and successful one. Anything else could signal a world catastrophe.

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