Addressing the Chinese “Threat”

Guest Commentary

Iraq is a tragic problem for the United States and its allies, but hopefully a temporary one. Thankfully the old U.S.S.R. is gone, no matter how hard Vladimir Putin might attempt to put it together again. But another potential superpower makes many Americans uneasy: China.

China is increasingly asserting itself around the globe. With the world’s largest population, swiftly growing economy, ancient culture, and authoritarian politics, the People’s Republic of China is seen as an almost inevitable U.S. rival. Some analysts even view war as likely.

The Council on Foreign Relations recently released a new task force report on U.S.-China relations, filled with the usual generic recommendations: “Improving economic relations,” “Enhancing security relations,” “Encouraging political reform,” etc. Whether there is political will on both sides of the Pacific to achieve these ends is the real issue.

Even today, any confrontation between America and the PRC, a nuclear-armed power with regional reach, would be far different than America’s wars with Serbia and Iraq. A future U.S.-China conflict could become a global conflagration.

Moreover, a friendly PRC could help resolve a range of lesser security and political issues, such a potential nuclear North Korea. Finally, there’s the potential benefit of a continuing economic relationship.

Whither relations between the two nations? There’s no cause for the touch of paranoia that afflicts some U.S. policymakers.Today America stands astride the globe as a colossus, with the world’s most productive economy, dominant military, and ubiquitous culture. Equally important, the People’s Republic of China is no substitute for the Soviet Union.

Uncle Sam need not follow an “anything goes” policy so long as American companies make money. But the worst strategy would be to treat the PRC as an enemy.

First, China is no longer communist in the traditional sense, with as much as two-thirds of the economy outside of government control, increasing personal autonomy, and not even a pretense of promoting world revolution. With only a hint of a smile, Chinese officials spoke to me in Beijing of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Second, international integration has helped erode China’s old totalitarian state. Foreign investment and trade have given China a stake in a peaceful global order.

Third, though Shanghai, Beijing, and other leading cities should impress visitors, rural China remains a century behind.Chinese officials estimate Shanghai’s per capita GDP at about $14,000, but that of China nationally at only $1700.

In 2005 America’s per capita GDP ran $42,000. Assuming recent growth rates continue—unlikely as the Chinese economy matures—the PRC’s GDP won’t surpass that of the UNITED STATES until 2035, and even then America’s per capita production will be four times as great.

Fourth, trade with China is largely beneficial to America. Although disputes dominate news headlines, similar concerns emerged and ultimately disappeared regarding Japan. Today few Americans worry about Japan overtaking the United States.

Fifth, the PRC isn’t likely to catch up to the U.S. militarily until mid-century at the earliest. Beijing will be able to match America in East Asia more quickly, but Washington’s current advantage has always been artificial: the United States cannot expect to forever dominate every region on earth.

Maintaining American influence will require thoughtful diplomacy and economic openness. But Washington has the advantage of being allied with most of China’s neighbors.

Of course, the PRC pessimists could be right. But treating China as an inevitable enemy and embarking upon a strategy of containment are far more likely to turn the PRC hostile.

Nor is such a policy sustainable. None of Washington’s friends in East Asia want to turn themselves into a target of China.

Engaging in economic war makes no more sense. Maybe such a policy would hurt the PRC more than America, but it would be mutually destructive in any case.

Perhaps most important, the Unites States should put its own house in order. Washington should push freer trade throughout Asia, develop a cooperative strategy towards China with allied states, and improve its international image.  America also should improve its economic competitiveness.

China today is more free, more prosperous, and more responsible than China only a few years ago.  There still is reason for America to be watchful and wary about Beijing’s policies.

But the United States is acting from a position of strength, and should confidently engage, rather than timidly isolate, what is likely to be the world’s next great power. The benefits of cementing a mutually constructive relationship in the coming decades would be enormous.