China and America are bound to be rivals, but they do not have to be antagonists

Dec 2nd 2010 | from PRINT EDITION

TOWARDS the end of 2003 and early in 2004 China’s most senior leaders
put aside the routine of governing 1.3 billion people to spend a couple
of afternoons studying the rise of great powers. You can imagine
history’s grim inventory of war and destruction being laid out before
them as they examined how, from the 15th century, empires and upstarts
had often fought for supremacy. And you can imagine them moving on to
the real subject of their inquiry: whether China will be able to take
its place at the top without anyone resorting to arms.

In many ways China has made efforts to try to reassure an anxious
world. It has repeatedly promised that it means only peace. It has spent
freely on aid and investment, settled border disputes with its
neighbours and rolled up its sleeves in UN peacekeeping forces and
international organisations. When North Korea shelled a South Korean
island last month China did at least try to create a framework to rein
in its neighbour.

But reasonable China sometimes gives way to aggressive China. In
March, when the North sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors,
China failed to issue any condemnation. A few months later it fell out
with Japan over some Chinese fishermen, arrested for ramming Japanese
coastguard vessels around some disputed islands—and then it locked up
some Japanese businessmen and withheld exports of rare earths vital for
Japanese industry. And it has forcefully reasserted its claim to the
Spratly and Paracel Islands and to sovereignty over virtually the entire
South China Sea.

As the Chinese leaders’ history lesson will have told them, the
relationship that determines whether the world is at peace or at war is
that between pairs of great powers. Sometimes, as with Britain and
America, it goes well. Sometimes, as between Britain and Germany, it
does not.

So far, things have gone remarkably well between America and China.
While China has devoted itself to economic growth, American security has
focused on Islamic terrorism and war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the
two mistrust each other. China sees America as a waning power that will
eventually seek to block its own rise. And America worries about how
Chinese nationalism, fuelled by rediscovered economic and military
might, will express itself (see our special report).

The Peloponnesian pessimists

Pessimists believe China and America are condemned to be rivals.
The countries’ visions of the good society are very different. And, as
China’s power grows, so will its determination to get its way and to do
things in the world. America, by contrast, will inevitably balk at
surrendering its pre-eminence.

They are probably right about Chinese ambitions. Yet China need not
be an enemy. Unlike the Soviet Union, it is no longer in the business of
exporting its ideology. Unlike the 19th-century European powers, it is
not looking to amass new colonies. And China and America have a lot in
common. Both benefit from globalisation and from open markets where they
buy raw materials and sell their exports. Both want a broadly stable
world in which nuclear weapons do not spread and rogue states, like Iran
and North Korea, have little scope to cause mayhem. Both would lose
incalculably from war.

The best way to turn China into an opponent is to treat it as one.
The danger is that spats and rows will sour relations between China and
America, just as the friendship between Germany and Britain crumbled in
the decades before the first world war. It is already happening in
defence. Feeling threatened by American naval power, China has been
modernising its missiles, submarines, radar, cyber-warfare and
anti-satellite weapons. Now America feels on its mettle. Recent Pentagon
assessments of China’s military strength warn of the threat to Taiwan
and American bases and to aircraft-carriers near the Chinese coast. The
US Navy has begun to deploy more forces in the Pacific. Feeling
threatened anew, China may respond. Even if neither America nor China
intended harm—if they wanted only to ensure their own security—each
could nevertheless see the other as a growing threat.

Some would say the solution is for America to turn its back on
military rivalry. But a weaker America would lead to chronic insecurity
in East Asia and thus threaten the peaceful conduct of trade and
commerce on which America’s prosperity depends. America therefore needs
to be strong enough to guarantee the seas and protect Taiwan from
Chinese attack.

How to take down the Great Wall

History shows that superpowers can coexist peacefully when the
rising power believes it can rise unhindered and the incumbent power
believes that the way it runs the world is not fundamentally threatened.
So a military build-up needs to be accompanied by a build-up of trust.

There are lots of ways to build trust in Asia. One would be to help
ensure that disputes and misunderstandings do not get out of hand. China
should thus be more open about its military doctrine—about its nuclear
posture, its aircraft-carriers and missile programme. Likewise, America
and China need rules for disputes including North Korea (see article),
Taiwan, space and cyber-warfare. And Asia as a whole needs agreements
to help prevent every collision at sea from becoming a trial of
strength.

America and China should try to work multilaterally. Instead of
today’s confusion of competing venues, Asia needs a single regional
security forum, such as the East Asia Summit, where it can do business.
Asian countries could also collaborate more in confidence-boosting
non-traditional security, such as health, environmental protection,
anti-piracy and counter-terrorism, where threats by their nature cross
borders.

If America wants to bind China into the rules-based liberal order it
promotes, it needs to stick to the rules itself. Every time America
breaks them—by, for instance, protectionism—it feeds China’s suspicions
and undermines the very order it seeks.

China and America have one advantage over history’s great-power
pairings: they saw the 20th century go disastrously wrong. It is up to
them to ensure that the 21st is different.

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