Tea Leaf Nation

‘Obama Is Sitting Alone at a Bar Drinking a Consolation Beer’

Chinese netizens are rejoicing in the U.S. failure to stymie China’s new investment bank.

NETHERLANDS-US-CHINA-DIPLOMACY
US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) meet at the US ambassador's residence in The Hague on March 24, 2014 ahead of the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS). AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Danish and Chinese netizens have just shared in a collective guffaw at America’s expense. The online lampoonery came after Denmark announced on March 28 its intent to join the Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank (AIIB), a China-led initiative aiming to provide loans and investment to developing nations in Asia. But the Obama administration’s opposition to the bank — U.S. officials, seeming to fear that Beijing’s initiative would reduce U.S. influence in the region, privately discouraged allies from joining — has made the Pacific power seem opposed to the $50 billion bank simply because it was China doing the leading. That means the influx of nations now eager to join the upstart leaves the United States with egg on its face.

Political blunders of this scale, it would seem, transcend language. On March 28, the Danish embassy in China posted a political cartoon to its account on Weibo, China’s huge Twitter-like microblogging platform, along with an announcement of the country’s plan to join the AIIB, which aims to help provide the $8 trillion in infrastructure investment that the Asian Development Bank has estimated the region will need between 2010 and 2020. The cartoon, originally published in the Danish daily Politiken, portrays an anxious-looking Obama glancing at a pocketwatch, while a train labeled “AIIB” zooms past, full of passengers. The crowded train indicates what appears to be growing momentum behind the AIIB, as traditional U.S. allies like the United Kingdom, Australia, and Denmark have recently bucked American pressure and scrambled to hand in their applications to Beijing before the March 31 deadline to join the AIIB as a founding member. (As of April 1, a total of 46 countries, as well as Taiwan and Hong Kong, have applied to join the bank). In response, the United States tempered its previous opposition, with U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew stating on March 22 that his country would be “willing to work with the AIIB.” But the fumbled U.S. response to the China-led initiative has fed into the perception common among many in China that the United States aims to contain China’s growing influence.

The Danish cartoon seemed to strike a chord with China’s online spaces, where grassroots nationalism flourishes and memories of China’s colonial past linger. Some expressed a certain glee at what they perceived as the U.S. president’s humiliation. “Obama,” as one user wrote, “is sitting alone at a bar right now drinking a consolation beer.” If some in Washington view the AIIB as a threat to U.S. interests in Asia, it’s clear that many Chinese netizens hold the same view — and are exulting in what they see as a strategic Chinese triumph. One user commented that he was “extremely moved” to see China, which had once been “pushed around” on the international stage, challenging the U.S.-led World Bank. In response to the “fooling of imperial America,” wrote another user, “as Chinese citizens we should say, ‘Beautifully done!’” Another declared, “China’s rise cannot be contained.”

But despite the blithe jabs at what some perceive as failed U.S. attempts to stymie the AIIB, Chinese are frequently more interested in the success of their own country than the decline of another. And in the case of the AIIB, likely to become China’s most significant contribution to international institutions to date, both netizens and media outlets cheered the successive waves of interest in the AIIB almost as a crowd would cheer on the home team. “Our mother land is mighty!” one user commented on March 30 Weibo post by the state-run People’s Daily that declared the most recent AIIB country count to be 43. “With so many countries joining,” wrote another, “we might as well call it the World Investment Bank!” Others reflected with pride on what the new endeavor might mean for China’s future. As one Weibo user wrote, “The AIIB shows that China is finding its own international voice.”

Chinese state-run media, for its part, sought to present the new bank as a win-win for all parties, rather than a power struggle. “The AIIB should not be overly politicized,” argued a March 30 editorial published in Hubei Daily and later syndicated by state news agency Xinhua. The editorial conceded that while competition would exist between the AIIB and its US-backed counterparts, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, it would be a “benign competition,” contending “not for hegemony, but for markets.” Such a stance echoes Beijing’s oft-repeated claim that as China works to extend its influence, its aim is economic prosperity and peaceful coexistence rather than hegemony. Even the often fervently nationalist Global Times showed relative restraint, though an anti-U.S. screed would likely have received support among netizens. While one May 23 editorial argued that the United States would only “isolate itself” by opposing the AIIB, another editorial two days later rejected the idea that the AIIB represents a zero-sum game between the United States and China, even calling it “absurd” that “a minority of Chinese feel smug” about what some may perceive as a U.S. defeat. And an April 1 Global Times article stated that the primary U.S. concern about the bank — rather than accusing the United States of attempting to contain China — was that it “might lower labor, environmental, and other requirements for loans.”

Still, though the stars have aligned in such a way as to generate that all-too-rare cosmic event — in which U.S. foreign-policy experts and Chinese state-run media have found themselves in agreement — nationalism still won the day among Chinese netizens. As one Weibo microblogger put it, “Finally China knows what it’s like to be boss!”

Yiqin Fu contributed research.

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Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy. @BethanyAllenEbr

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