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.
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.
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.
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.
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."