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Global Viewpoint

The US-China relationship is vital to global stability. Good thing it isn't doomed.

President Obama and China's incoming president Xi Jinping should meet to revalidate and re-energize the US-China relationship. Whether this relationship is vital and robust, or weak and full of suspicion, will affect the whole world.

By Zbigniew Brzezinski / February 18, 2013

Outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao, right, and President Obama, left, take their places with other leaders for a photo during the G20 Summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, June 18, 2012. Op-ed contributor Zbigniew Brzezinski says, 'America and China should very deliberatively not let their economic competition turn into political hostility.'

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File

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Washington

Today, many anxious voices fear that the emerging American-Chinese duopoly must inherently generate hostility and lead to inevitable conflict between the world’s two largest economies. However, I do not believe that wars for global domination are a serious prospect in what is now the post-hegemonic age.

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Admittedly, the historical record is dismal. Since the onset of global politics 200 years ago, four long wars were fought over the domination of Europe: 1812-1815) due to Napoleonic ambitions; 1914-18 due to Germanic imperial frustration; 1939-45 due to Nazi madness; and from the late 1940s to 1991 due to worldwide Soviet ambitions. Each of these wars could have resulted in global hegemony by a sole superpower.

Yet several developments over recent years have changed the equation. 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. Further, the populations of the world have now awakened politically and are not so easily subdued, even by the most powerful. Last but not least, neither the United State nor China is driven by hostile ideologies.

Moreover, despite our very different political systems, both of our societies are, in different ways, open. That, too, offsets pressure from within each respective society toward animus and hostility. More than 100,000 young Chinese are students at American universities. It is fashionable for the offspring of the top Chinese leaders to study in the US.

Thousands of young Americans study and work in China, or participate in special study or travel programs. Several major US universities now have their own campuses in China with both American and Chinese faculty. Unlike the former Soviet Union, millions of Chinese regularly travel abroad as tourists and to work temporarily. Millions of young Chinese are in daily touch with the world through the Internet.

All this contrasts greatly with the societal self-isolation of the 19th- and 20th-century contestants for global power. Mutual isolation in those days intensified grievances, escalated hostility, and made it easier to demonize one another.

Nonetheless, we cannot entirely ignore the fact that the hopeful expectation in recent years of an amicable American-Chinese relationship has lately been tested by ever more antagonistic polemics, especially in the mass media of both sides. This has been 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 in their simplistic view of the world and history.

Pessimism about America’ future tends to underestimate this country’s capacity for self-renewal. Exuberant optimists about China’s inevitable preeminence underestimate the gap that still separates China from America – whether in GDP per capita terms or in respective technological capabilities. 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 can continue to direct a system of state capitalism with a rising middle class seeking more rights.

Military anxiety

Simplistic agitation regarding the potential Chinese military threat to America ignores the benefits that the US also derives from its very favorable geostrategic location on the open shores of two great oceans as well as from its trans-oceanic allies on all sides. In contrast, China is geographically encircled by not always friendly states and has very few – if any – allies.

On occasion, some of China’s neighbors are tempted by this circumstance to draw America into support of their specific claims or conflicts of interest against China. Fortunately, there are some signs that a consensus is emerging that such threats should not be resolved unilaterally or militarily, but through negotiation.

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