Talking about China

This past week, with the very generous assistance of the political science and global studies departments, I was very fortunate to attend the 54th Academy Assembly of the U.S. Air Force in Colorado Springs. Concordia is one of a small number of institutions of higher learning that are invited to send a delegate or two to this event, whose theme this year was “US-China Relations: Cooperation or Conflict in the 21st Century?” The range of speakers was formidable and included illustrious personalities in the increasingly important world of US-China relations such as former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, Professor Alice Miller of the Hoover Institution, Lieutenant General Daniel P. Leaf, former deputy commander of the U.S. Pacific Command Daniel Leaf, and the eminent China scholar Professor David Shambaugh of George Washington University.

The title of the conference itself was slightly misleading; it is not an easy task to make a simplistic forecast of the future of the world’s most important bilateral relationship in a way that reduces it to either cooperation or conflict. Since China’s entrance into the world community in the 1970s, it has slowly been integrated into a wide array of economic and political institutions that have made it one of the world’s most consequential actors. The U.S. and China are in a sense symbiotically connected because of the huge volume of trade between the states. China is no longer an “emerging” nation; its meteoric economic rise has not only lifted hundreds of millions of its own citizens from poverty and it has been a major component of the world’s economic growth and revitalization.

In spite of the many important areas of cooperation that the U.S. and China presently undertake, almost all of the speakers expressed doubt that the relationship will be able to evolve in a way that avoids armed conflict. As Lt. Gen. Leaf pointed out, the threat of escalation is entirely related to the historical problem of emerging powers displacing or threatening the “hegemonic” status of existing great powers, and how one state’s pursuit of security invariably leads to suspicion in the other. Managing the U.S.-China relationship must involve, more than anything, the establishment of links that will address this important threat of misunderstanding, misinterpretation and mutual suspicion.

In economic and political matters, the consensus among the many scholars who spoke was that China is at a major crossroads in its history. Externally, China is surrounded by increasingly fearful neighbors that are turning to the United States for security partnerships as a hedge against their increasingly powerful neighbor. Internally, China has a considerable array of problems that its political leadership will have to tackle if it is to have any chance of breaking out of the “middle income trap” and building a prosperous society. These problems include rampant environmental degradation, prolific corruption, and economic mismanagement and misallocation.

In my discussions with participants, I expressed a very pessimistic view about the future of US-China relations. In my view, it’s fairly inconsequential that commercial and social links between the two states have grown to extraordinary heights since the 1970s, that the two economies are symbiotically linked, and that the prospects for conflict are unquestionably too costly to imagine. As Robert Kagan pointed out in his book “The World America Made,” there was already a time when politicians, scholars,and other observers hailed the onset of a new commercial era in which international links were too strong to risk eviscerating in armed conflict; that was the pre-World War I era. History, on the other hand, is full of geopolitical upheavals in which rising powers that threaten to displace established ones inevitably fuel conflict. This can be observed from the time of the Second Peloponnesian War all the way to the rise of Germany in the decades before World War I.

Although the U.S. and China share many important interests, many are divergent. From Taiwan to the considerable presence of the United States in the Pacific region, the two powerful states will be unable to negotiate many issues that are simply too different to reconcile. I believe that the inevitable trajectory of the relationship is conflict.

Of course, this was not the view expressed by all the speakers at the conference. As former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman pointed out to me in a brief private chat, the responsibility of future administrations in both countries is to manage the aforementioned issues of mutual suspicion and insecurity to safeguard the important gains of economic cooperation and social interaction. In his view, nothing in this world is inevitable, and while history may serve as a useful guide to understanding the way the world works, human agency ultimately plays an important role in determining policy and avoiding poor decisions. I naturally hope Ambassador Huntsman is correct. What is certain is that the progress and prosperity of this entire century hinges on the degree to which he is correct. I for one am not hopeful that the 21st century will treat humankind well.

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