Is China Overplaying Its Hand?

LONDON – Remember the G-2? America’s financial difficulties and foreign entanglements, together with China’s economic ascent, led many last year to envisage the emergence of a sort of global condominium between the two countries. The G-8 had morphed by necessity into the G-20, which, whenever it really mattered, would shed its zero: the United States and China would call the shots.

The idea was an over-simplified reflection of global realities. It left out other emerging powers like Brazil and India. It exaggerated the weakness of America, which remains the world’s only superpower. It also reeked of the European Union’s peevish realization that its inability to get its act together on contentious issues was likely to place it firmly on the sidelines. At the Copenhagen climate summit last December, don’t forget, a deal of sorts was cobbled together by the US and the emerging economies over the EU’s head, even though Europe had the most advanced set of proposals on tackling climate change.

Despite all this, there was enough credibility in the G-2 idea to give it legs. President Barack Obama’s first visit to China last November, in which he accepted the role of pliant suitor at the court of the emperor, strengthened the impression of a deal between today’s great power and tomorrow’s.

That was last year. This is now, and the idea looks a lot less plausible. Why has the G-2 become so far-fetched so fast?