Irrespective of what anyone may say, the People's Republic of China is an enigma. As it celebrates its 60th Anniversary many questions loom. For the United States, answers to these questions are necessary to calibrate an effective overall foreign policy.
For many US commentators, China's rise as the next "Superpower" is inevitable. For others, it is an ancient, multi-cultural empire that oscillates through cycles of both administrative centralization and centrifugal stress, thus not necessarily representing a snarling dragon at all, but a potentially fragile state that could be blown apart by unexpected geopolitical storms. For some it is an indispensable linchpin to a reordered global economy. And for others, it is a rising military threat that must be hedged or contained so as to not destabilize East Asia and the world at large.
Which of these visions is the most closely related to reality? There is no unambiguous answer. In many ways, they are all true and none true. This is what makes the development of policy related to China so perplexing.
For the United States, this is especially so. It is common knowledge that China owns a substantial portion of US debt and that it has been one of the key creditors that has allowed the US to go on both a consumer and government spending spree of epic proportions. For a time, it seemed that this was a mutually beneficial arrangement. Indeed, phrases like "Chimerica" have come into usage in order to reflect the symbiotic relationship between American consumer needs and the Chinese need to practice a neo-mercantilist policy of exporting for economic growth.
This has led essentially every US Administration since Nixon and Kissinger opened the door to Beijing in the 70s to play an intriguing double game. The current Obama Administration is no different. It recognizes the key relationships that have been developed in the private sector between US firms and China and well understands its national indebtedness. However, it also feels it must give a little to its political constituency by placing tariffs on certain products, thus opening the door to a possible trade war. This is really no different from the second Bush Administration which recognized the same economic relationship, but occasionally had to sound "alarms" at Chinese military expenditures and what they might portend in the future in order to assuage concerns of ever nervous hawks.
Indeed, the American policy to China will likely always remain somewhat stuck playing this kind of double game. The need for economic cooperation between the two powers and the growing need for cooperation on issues of global warming will remain. However, friction will also be a permanent fixture of this relationship. Not only economic competition, but military competition seems very possible given the intricacies and demands associated with securing access to natural resources for heavily industrialized nations.
It should also be noted that American fears of a "peer rival" combined with Chinese nationalism and a not unwarranted sense of having been damaged by both Western and Japanese colonial powers in the past, will conspire to make the relationship rather rocky at times even if it never declines to the point of outright belligerency.
So what should America do? It must do what it always has: hedge its bets.
A naïve belief in perpetual economic interdependence could leave America "shocked" and woefully unprepared if relations suddenly deteriorate over any number of issues like Taiwan or access to resources. Conversely, a predetermined mindset that conflict is inevitable will assure such an outcome does materialize.
America and China will have to stumble along, cooperating where they must on economic issues and, potentially, on global warming. Meanwhile, America must also retain a robust presence in East Asia while maintaining its relations with other key powers like India, South Korea, and, most pivotally, Japan. A continued naval presence as well as further enhancements of land and sea based missile defense systems must remain a priority.
'Hedging' often seems a dirty word for those that prefer moral absolutes. In the case of China's rise, such absolutes are not possible. The nature of the regime, and the nature of the international system itself preclude such certainty. No matter how China develops, America must be prepared. It cannot afford not to be.
Mr. Lawson is the Director of Communications for a US based political advocacy organization and is a life long observer of political and foreign affairs.
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- Hongyi Lai: The Inevitable Rise of China and the World's Necessary Response