Today, many fear that the emerging American-Chinese duopoly must inevitably lead to conflict. But 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 (including the Cold War) were fought over the domination of Europe, each of which 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 awakened politically and are not so easily subdued, even by the most powerful. Last but not least, neither the United States nor China is driven by hostile ideologies.
Moreover, despite our very different political systems, both our societies are, in different ways, open. That, too, offsets pressure from within each respective society toward animus and hostility. More than 100,000 Chinese are students at American universities, and thousands of young Americans study and work in China or participate in special study or travel programs. Unlike in the former Soviet Union, millions of Chinese regularly travel abroad. And 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, which intensified grievances, escalated hostility and made it easier to demonize the 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.
Pessimism about America’ future tends to underestimate its capacity for self-renewal. Exuberant optimists about China’s inevitable pre-eminence underestimate the gap that still separates China from America — whether in G.D.P. 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 U.S. 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 the U.S. into support of their specific claims or conflicts of interest against China. Fortunately, there are 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 U.S. is both a Pacific and Atlantic power.
Taking all this into account, the real threat to a stable U.S.-China relationship does not 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, U.S. political and economic involvement in Asia can be a crucially needed stabilizing factor. Indeed, America’s current role in Asia should be analogous to Britain’s role in 19th-century Europe as an “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 U.S. engagement in Asia must not be based solely on existing alliances with Japan and South Korea. Engagement must also mean institutionalizing U.S.- Chinese cooperation.
Accordingly, America and China should 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 U.S. ought not seek a “trans-Pacific partnership” without China, and China should not seek a Regional Comprehensive Economic Pact without the U.S.
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 Obama reelected and Xi Jinping preparing to take over China’s presidency in March, the two leaders should meet to revalidate and re-energize the U.S.-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 President Jimmy Carter. His most recent book is The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives.
GLOBAL VIEWPOINT/ TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES