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.
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Matters have been not helped by the American media’s characterization of the Obama administration’s relative rebalancing of focus toward Asia as a “pivot” – a word never used by the president – with military connotations. In fact, the new effort was only meant to be a constructive reaffirmation of the unchanged reality that the US is both a Pacific and Atlantic power.Skip to next paragraph
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Taking all these factors into account, the real threat to a stable US-China relationship does not currently arise from any hostile intentions on the part of either country, but from the disturbing possibility that a revitalized Asia may slide into the kind of nationalistic fervor that precipitated conflicts in 20th-century Europe over resources, territory, or power.
There are plenty of potential flash points: North Korea vs. South Korea, China vs. Japan, China vs. India, or India vs. Pakistan. The danger is that if governments incite or allow nationalistic fervor as a kind of safety valve it can spin out of control.
In such a potentially explosive context, US political and economic involvement in Asia can be a crucially needed stabilizing factor. Indeed, America’s current role in Asia should be analogous to Great Britain’s role in 19th-century Europe as a constructive “off-shore” balancing influence with no entanglements in the region’s rivalries and no attempt to attain domination over the region.
To be effective, constructive and strategically sensitive engagement in Asia by the US must not be based solely on its existing alliances with democratic Japan and South Korea – which is in China’s interests because of its stabilizing impact. Engagement must also mean institutionalizing American and Chinese cooperation.
Accordingly, America and China should very deliberatively not let their economic competition turn into political hostility. Mutual engagement bilaterally and multilaterally – and not reciprocal exclusion – is what is needed. For example, the US ought not seek a “trans-Pacific partnership” without China, and China should not seek a Regional Comprehensive Economic Pact without the US.
History can avoid repeating the calamitous conflicts of the 20th century if America is present in Asia as stabilizer – not a would-be policeman – and if China becomes the preeminent, but not domineering, power in the region.
In January 2011, President Obama and now-departing Chinese President Hu Jintao met and issued a communiqué boldly detailing joint undertakings and proposing to build a historically unprecedented partnership between America and China.
With Mr. Obama now re-elected and Communist Party chief Xi Jinping preparing to take over China’s presidency in March, the two leaders 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.
Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security adviser to US President Jimmy Carter. His most recent book is "Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power."