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Archive for Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Practicality marks U.S.-China relations

November 22, 2005

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Whenever the leader of the world's only superpower travels to the Middle Kingdom, rumors swirl as to the true nature of the visit.

Has President Bush, in private, delivered a blunt message regarding American ambitions that will heighten Beijing's fears about future tensions and the so-called U.S. encirclement plot? After all, didn't Bush - in a speech in Kyoto, Japan, last week - push China to embrace freedom and evolve into a big Taiwan? And haven't other American officials' words smacked of containment when they suggested that strong U.S. relationships with Japan, South Korea and India create a setting that should encourage Beijing to behave?

Or has Bush met with his Chinese counterpart for a more nefarious purpose - again, in private - to expand the coziness between the Bush family and the Chinese leadership that dates back several decades to former President George Bush's connections, perhaps even to plot how they might share control of the world?

Although such ideas entertain and propel conspiracy theorists to new creative heights, the U.S.-China relationship increasingly has tilted toward the more mundane and practical, reflecting the mutual interest the United States and China have in resolving global challenges.

Influential nations do have a responsibility to regard one another somewhat warily, especially when one such as China is amassing power at an extraordinary rate. But the fact of the matter is that Beijing owes its success in large part not only to its desire to reform but to the United States' willingness to welcome it into the international mainstream and provide an accessible market. Thus, from the beginning of the Chinese reform impulse, the two countries have shared many interests.

That China channels a growing amount of its newfound wealth into military capabilities bears watching without necessarily signaling alarm. After all, the United States brandishes more might than any nation in history and has not chosen to dominate the world. Nor did Washington select such a course at two earlier moments of preeminence - after World War II and at the end of the Cold War. Moreover, those in the United States who paint China as a future adversary or promote containment, if they were to sway opinion, could produce precisely what Americans should seek to avoid: a China that feels even more compelled to militarize because of a perceived U.S. threat.

Now, I fully understand that the United States and China cast unique political shadows, stemming from differing origins, philosophies and goals. Still, China's peaceful rise is critical not only to the stable evolution of the Asia-Pacific region but to Beijing's own continued success. The Chinese understand this.

Furthermore, issues abound that demand the cooperative hand of both countries: the rapidly transforming conflict with terrorism that features the perpetrators' targeting of sites in China and the United States; the disruptive impulses of North Korea and its nuclear-weapons program, which threaten the stability of the surrounding region; the often-strained tie between China and Taiwan; the global competition for energy resources - with the United States and China as the world's top two oil consumers - particularly in the Middle East; the perennial question of protecting and advancing human rights; the U.S.-China trade imbalance and other economic matters; and the need to control the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including in Iran.

Washington and Beijing see eye to eye on some of those issues and disagree vehemently on others. That pattern will continue. Agreement, which I hope will characterize most discussions, should not conjure up images of secret handshakes. Similarly, disagreement should not invite visions of containment. The "strategic competitor" rhetoric that clouded the U.S.-China relationship in the early years of the Bush administration has no place today. Global challenges are difficult enough with the reinsertion of unnecessary belligerence.

- John C. Bersia, an editorial writer for the Orlando Sentinel, is also the special assistant to the president for global perspectives and a professor at the University of Central Florida.

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