America and China

  • Chinese US Flags
    Jan 4, 2012

    We are all here tonight because we believe that American-Chinese friendship is good for the world. And in fact, the relationship itself is good. But it could certainly be better, and—to be frank—we also cannot entirely dismiss the possibility that it could get worse.

    These days some argue that the emerging American-Chinese duopoly must inherently generate eventual hostility, and hence they conclude that conflict between America and China is inevitable. Admittedly, it is a historical fact that during the last 200 years—since the onset of global politics—four long wars were fought for domination over Europe: 1812-15 Napoleonic ambitions; 1914-18 Germanic imperial frustration; 1939-45 Nazi madness; and from the late 1940s to the early 1990s, Soviet worldwide ideological ambitions. Indeed, each of these wars could have resulted in global hegemony by a sole power.

    However, I do not believe that wars for global domination are a serious prospect in what is now the post-hegemonic age. Nuclear weapons make hegemonic wars too destructive and thus victory meaningless. One-sided national economic triumphs cannot be achieved in the increasingly interwoven global economy without precipitating calamitous consequences for everyone. The populations of the world are now politically awakened and hence are not easily subdued even by much more powerful powers.

    Last but not least, neither America nor China is driven by hostile ideologies.

    And neither is suicidal.

    Moreover, both of our societies are open—even though our political systems are very different. That too offsets pressures from within each respective society toward animus and hostility. More than 100,000 young Chinese are students in our universities, and it is fashionable for the offspring of the top Chinese leaders to study in our leading universities. Thousands of young Americans study in China or participate in special study and travel programs. Several of our top universities now have their own campuses in China, with their own professors as well as Chinese professors as the faculty. In addition, so unlike the former Soviet Union, literally millions of Chinese regularly travel abroad as tourists, and some also temporarily work abroad. Finally, millions of younger urban Chinese are in daily touch with the world through the Internet.

    Just contrast that with the societal semi-isolation of the 19th and 20th century contestants for global power. Their mutual isolation intensified grievances, escalated hostility, and made it easier to demonize one another. Even as recently as a few decades ago the people of the Soviet Union, or a few decades ago even in China, had a very limited exposure to the prevailing realities in the outside world.

    That said, we cannot entirely ignore the fact that the hopeful expectation in recent years of an amicable American-Chinese relationship has lately been tested by more antagonistic polemics—especially in the mass media of both sides—fueled in part by speculation about America’s allegedly inevitable decline and about China’s relentless rapid rise. In the mass media, economically anxious American pessimists and nationalistically exuberant Chinese optimists have been prolific and outspoken but also a little simplistic.

    Pessimism about America’s future tends to underestimate this country’s capacity for self-renewal. Exuberant optimism about China’s inevitable preeminence underestimates the gap that still separates China from America—whether in GDP or GDP per capita or in respective technological capabilities. Simplistic agitation regarding the potential Chinese military threat to America ignores the benefits that the United States also derives from its very favorable geostrategic location on the open shores of two great oceans, as well as from its many trans-oceanic allies.

    In contrast, China is geographically encircled by not always friendly states and has very few—if any—allies. At the same time, domestically and somewhat paradoxically, China’s truly admirable economic success is now intensifying the systemic need for complex social and political adjustments in how—and to what extent—a ruling bureaucracy that defines itself as communist directs a system of state capitalism.

    Concurrently, in recent times, both countries have also been preoccupied with approaching political leadership changes. That preoccupation may have also contributed, unintentionally, to intensified trans-oceanic polemics.

    In America, competitive electoral sloganeering found China to be a tempting political target (just recall a presidential candidate’s reckless pledge regarding China’s alleged currency manipulation), while fear-mongers fueled anxiety about China’s alleged quest for military supremacy, including even hypothetical futuristic scenarios of high-tech warfare.

    In China, the prolonged and veiled process of selecting a new team created a pause in authoritative foreign policy guidance, with mass media commentators freer to air nationalistic grievances regarding alleged American designs to contain and isolate china.

    At the same time, some of china’s neighbors occasionally seemed tempted to draw America into support of their specific claims or conflicts of interest directed at china, while china’s official party newspaper warned that “the Chinese government will launch a series of strong counter-measures and will never be softhearted.”

    Matters may also not have been helped by some of the American mass media interpretations and maybe also by official backgrounders regarding the somewhat abruptly unveiled U.S. “rebalancing” or “pivoting” of its strategic engagements in Europe and Asia respectively. Formally announced in November 2011 by a major speech by the U.S. president while visiting Australia, the effort was intended to be a constructive reaffirmation of the unchanged reality that the United States is both a Pacific Ocean power and an Atlantic Ocean power. (To strengthen the message, the president’s statement was preceded by an important speech by the secretary of state and followed by an op-ed by the national security adviser, both of whom deserve a lot of credit for initiating the timely policy review.)

    Unfortunately, some of the backgrounding—seizing on the more dramatic word “pivot” (a word not actually used by the president in his speech)—concentrated on the prospective U.S. military realignment toward Asia, thus causing, not surprisingly, some Asian commentators to interpret the “rebalancing” as perhaps foreshadowing some sort of an American inspired new Asian alignment. That certainly that was not America’s basic intent.

    In addition, matters were made worse by the almost coincidental rise of some potentially inflammatory jurisdictional issues regarding the South China Sea, as well as some other off-shore islands. Fortunately, there are some signs that consensus is now surfacing that such disputes should be solved by negotiation and not threats, not to mention unilateral acts.

    Any case, in my judgment the real threat to a stable U.S.-China relationship arises neither from America’s or from China’s hostile intentions, but from the disturbing possibility that the revitalized Asia may slide into nationalistic fervor that then precipitates conflicts reminiscent of 20th-century Europe over natural resources, territory, or power.

    Consider the potential regional dynamics of North Korea vs. South Korea, China and Japan, China and India, India vs. Pakistan, or maritime jurisdictional disputes—all intensified by nationalistic fervor.

    Isn’t all that reminiscent of 20th-century Europe? Nationalisms as domestic safety valves? Or simply out of control? It poses a potentially dismal prospect of intensifying Asian conflicts contributing to global turmoil in the new post-hegemonic era.

    In that unpredictable context, U.S. political and economic involvement in Asia can actually be the crucially needed stabilizing factor in a potentially explosive region. Indeed, I see in America’s current role in Asia as akin to Britain’s role in 19th-century Europe: off-shore constructive and balancing engagement but no entanglements in the region’s rivalries and no attempt to attain domination over the region.

    It therefore follows that constructive and strategically sensitive American engagement in Asia—including its existing alliances with democratic Japan and democratic South Korea—is thus in fact also in China’s interest, and especially so if in the meantime American-Chinese cooperation is increasingly institutionalized.

    Accordingly, America and China should very deliberately not let their economic competition turn into political hostility. Mutual American-Chinese engagement bilaterally and multilaterally—and not reciprocal exclusion—is what is needed.    For example, what is the point of seeking a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) without China—or a Regional Comprehensive Economic Pact (RCE) without America?

    In brief, with America in Asia acting as a stabilizer but certainly not as a would-be policeman and with China in Asia preeminent but not domineering, it follows that the ambitious Obama-Hu communiqué of January 2011—boldly detailing joint undertakings—needs now to be revalidated and periodically upgraded. Presidents Obama and Xi should meet soon, review the progress already made and set new targets, develop further a trans-pacific code of conduct, and reaffirm the significance of the emerging and historically unprecedented global partnership between America and China. The world certainly needs it.

    Zbigniew Brzezinski is a trustee and counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He served as national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter.

    Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.