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U.S.-China Relations or Rivalry? April 12, 2012

Posted by tkcollier in Geopolitics.
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America has simply reached the historical limit of its credit, a limit represented not by the federal debt ceiling, but by the widespread global perception that our best days are behind us absent significant restructuring across our economy and government. By and large, neither U.S. political party wants to hear this, much less act upon it. Instead, we Americans either assume that our next “exceptional” rebound will unfold naturally or believe that it can somehow be achieved by sabotaging China’s rise. Our truly unimaginative political leaders in both parties reach for both straws simultaneously, a combination of hubris and fear that is both odd and depressing.

Any expert familiar with China’s current situation recognizes its precariousness: a vast nation of more than 1 billion souls, with more than half of them still living in incredible poverty, attempting to shift — simultaneously! — from extensive to intensive growth and from centralized political authority to something necessarily more federalized and democratized. Amid these combined evolutions, the Chinese Communist Party is most definitely doomed, and it knows it. Already, senior party officials, especially those in retirement, admit this looming reality.

We can only hope that the world will play the Sino-American rivalry more intelligently that either of its combatants do, until generational change on both sides eventually works its political magic.Writing in Foreign Affairs this month, Henry Kissinger opined that, when it comes to the future of Sino-American relations, “conflict is a choice, not a necessity.” Those are some serious words from one of history’s all-time realists, but more important than his analysis is the fact that he even felt the need to issue that public statement regarding these two ultimately codependent superpowers. A trusted part-time adviser to President Barack Obama, Kissinger knows he has the president’s ear on China, the target of this administration’s recently announced strategic military “pivot” toward East Asia.

The codependency at work here isn’t the same narrow sort of “mutually assured destruction” that we had with the Soviets during the Cold War. This codependency is far more inescapable, in that it cannot be signed away with diplomatic treaties. Instead, it is a long-term trade and investment codependency that will define the very nature of globalization in the decades ahead. Simply put, the global economy — and China’s export-driven rise — can no longer survive on U.S. domestic consumption alone.

America has simply reached the historical limit of its credit, a limit represented not by the federal debt ceiling, but by the widespread global perception that our best days are behind us absent significant restructuring across our economy and government. By and large, neither U.S. political party wants to hear this, much less act upon it. Instead, we Americans either assume that our next “exceptional” rebound will unfold naturally or believe that it can somehow be achieved by sabotaging China’s rise. Our truly unimaginative political leaders in both parties reach for both straws simultaneously, a combination of hubris and fear that is both odd and depressing.

Unsurprisingly, we can spot virtually all the same sad dynamics on China’s side, with the hubris coming in two forms: ideological and military. Neither is even slightly warranted.

China’s “economic miracle” is nothing more than a cashed out demographic dividend, along with a fragile environmental base now rendered comprehensively brittle. There is nothing new about the allegedly superior “China model,” and Beijing’s Western admirers who claim something unique here actually display a stunning ignorance of economic history. China is hitting same developmental “walls” now — such as the S-Curve and middle-income trap, among others — that have confronted all previous “risers.” The necessary solutions are likewise familiar, recalling America’s Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century.

Remembering how tumultuously class-conscious that era was for our nation, you’d think America might evince more caution in its China rhetoric. After all, the only thing more frightening than a “rising” China will be a self-immolating one, because then the Communist Party’s sole recourse will be that society’s explosive nationalism, another quality that “jingoistic” America had in surplus during its Progressive Era.

Meanwhile, China is building up its military at a rapid but not unusual pace for a rising economic power of its size, especially considering the nation’s skyrocketing dependence on overseas resources emanating from regions of dubious stability. If China were less bully-like with its neighbors over a plethora of disputed land and maritime border claims, America would logically be inclined to welcome Beijing’s growing military might as sufficient relief to both its own weariness and the progressive loss of historical allies that have literally grown too old to play a meaningful security role anymore.

But because Beijing has almost completely botched that aspect of its rise, Washington is beseeched by virtually all of China’s neighbors for both arms and increased military cooperation and presence. Thus, America is put in the strategically awkward position of attempting to box in China regionally just as Beijing’s global interests explode. Yes, Obama administration says otherwise, constantly reiterating the notion that Washington welcomes China’s rise. But in truth, America is in the business of strategically destabilizing China.

How else does one explain Obama’s military strategic “pivot” to East Asia, a once-in-a-generation shift apparently so important that America must concomitantly downplay both the war on terror and the importance of the Arab world in general, just as the Arab Spring arrives!

Any expert familiar with China’s current situation recognizes its precariousness: a vast nation of more than 1 billion souls, with more than half of them still living in incredible poverty, attempting to shift — simultaneously! — from extensive to intensive growth and from centralized political authority to something necessarily more federalized and democratized. Amid these combined evolutions, the Chinese Communist Party is most definitely doomed, and it knows it. Already, senior party officials, especially those in retirement, admit this looming reality.

The questions surrounding China’s twin evolutions do not involve direction but pace: The Chinese people must collectively decide the speed of these transformations for themselves, because the minute this process seems forced from the outside, the natural fear-threat reaction will be based on the supposition that America seeks to sabotage China’s historic rise. This supposition will be correct in that Americans, whether they care to admit it or not, are more comfortable with a belligerently authoritarian and poor China than a rich China that actually figures out its own version of democracy.

Why? Because that China can no longer serve as scapegoat for everything that is wrong with America. An America bereft of that external excuse would finally have to deal with its domestic problems directly, something neither major political party has the courage to address right now. Instead, we Americans prefer the “strategic distrust” that currently dominates our bilateral relationship with China, at least so long as the Cold War-era Baby Boomer generation similarly dominates our political landscape. That Sixties generation came of age with a dangerous and untrustworthy China, an image it has yet to cast off.

On that score, it is important to note that the man who will presumably be China’s next president, Xi Jinping, likewise came of age during the tumultuous era of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. It is no accident that Xi’s looming coronation comes amid the very public sacking of Chongqing’s party boss, Bo Xilai, who rose to recent prominence by leading a Maoist state-centric revival there. Unfortunately, what this likely means for China’s reform movement is a continuation of incrementalism that will only push America’s many hawks into advocating stronger policies designed to pressure China into more rapid evolutions, thereby feeding the usual mutual recriminations.

What is so tragic about this point in world history is that its two biggest powers seem trapped into producing leaders who cannot escape the past. Despite all the soothing official rhetoric, both sides’ actions remain consistently clear: They choose to make each other enemies out of domestic necessity. China sees democratization as “surrendering” to America, and America now views globalization as “losing” to China. Amid such incredible challenges, it is simply easier for China to build a “carrier killer” missile and for America to plop down 2,500 Marines on Australia’s northern coast.

There is little reason to expect that this all-crucial bilateral relationship will improve anytime soon. We can only hope that the world will play the Sino-American rivalry more intelligently that either of its combatants do, until generational change on both sides eventually works its political magic.

Thomas P.M. Barnett is chief analyst at Wikistrat and a contributing editor for Esquire magazine. His eBook serial is “The Emily Updates: One Year in the Life of the Girl Who Lived” (September-December 2011). His weekly WPR column, The New Rules, appears every Monday. Reach him and his blog at thomaspmbarnett.com.

Photo: The Nine Dragon Screen, Datong, Shanxi, China (Photo by Wikimedia user Doron, licensed under the Creative Commons ShareAlike 3.0 Attribution).

via WPR Article | The New Rules: Hubris Drives Mistrust in U.S.-China Relations.

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