I’ve been a “China hand” since 1978, when I wrote and pushed the first U.S.-PRC trade bill to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. I couldn’t have known it then but my ensuring whisker thin legislative defeat was short-lived. Six months later, China and the U.S. changed the course of history by establishing diplomatic relations. I have always believed that the futures of the two states are intertwined. Now, having just returned from the “Middle Kingdom” for the first time in 32 years, I believe the next half-century offers the global promise of a Sino-American era of cooperation, peace and prosperity. On the other hand, historic forces and narrow nationalistic thinking on each or either side may produce a result that is diametrically and dangerously opposite.
In Washington and Beijing, this dicephalous prospect demands immediate attention and imaginative thinking at the highest levels of government—vision at least as bold as Nixon’s trip to China and the establishment of diplomatic relations in the first place.
If it is occurring, it is well disguised.
When I visited China in February 1979 at the invitation of the PRC, Deng Xiaoping had just launched the Great Opening to the world and began moving toward his hybrid form of communism, a “socialist market economy.” Upon my return in May, I saw firsthand what Deng’s reforms had produced in merely three decades: a nation with a spectacular rate of economic growth, the world’s second largest economy and, arguably, superpower status second only to the U.S.
Unlike the late, unlamented Soviet brand of communism, which was antithetical to world order, Chinese communism has generally sought stability to allow it to continue building its domestic economy. In this, China and U.S. interests would seem symmetrical. Moreover, the nations jointly possess the international heft and power to bend world history for the better. For example, together they could achieve:
A successful global fight against climate change. China and the United States are the world’s top producers of greenhouse emissions. The International Energy Agency, in Paris, announced that in 2010 global CO2 emissions rose by a record amount—despite slow global economic growth—to almost thirty-one billion metric tons. Joint remedial action could bring the last remaining foot-dragging nations to a meaningful international protocol on climate change. Such action would not be entirely eleemosynary, for China and the U.S. are themselves suffering from greenhouse effects. Along the drought stricken Yangtze River more than four million Chinese lack sufficient drinking water. This summer, the America Southwest rangeland is ablaze while the Midwest and Northern Rockies are coping with record floods. Meanwhile, porpoise, a warm water species, are now found in the Bering Strait.
- Inroads against international terrorists. A world fraught with terror is, per se, inimical to global stability. This is hardly academic for either Beijing or Washington. Both are victims of terror. China has suffered bombings and riots its northwestern Xinjiang region. One group there, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), has been designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.N. and U.S. State Department. Its stated aims are the independence Xinjiang and the conversion of all of China to Islam. Terrorism against U.S. is more widely known—targeted on its homeland, its military assets in the Mediterranean Ocean and its embassies in Africa. Given wariness between each state’s carapactic military elites, only a naif would suggest the feasibility of U.S.-Chinese counterterrorism efforts against, say, the Taliban or the ETIM. But as a beginning, the states could conduct a joint crackdown on piracy, terrorism’s second cousin in the South Seas. Pirates have long bedeviled international shipping—including Chinese and American merchant vessels—from the Arabia Sea off Somalia, westward to the Philippines Sea and Pacific.
- Vigorous bilateral trade in green technology. China’s aggressive plans for a system of railroads create a large market for assembly and manufacture of U.S.-built locomotives. In turn, the U.S. and China could collaborate on high-speed rail and electric rail in North America. Similar opportunities abound, notably in electric cars and airplanes.
- Non-proliferation. Limiting the spread of nuclear weapons is based on the 57-year-old American idea that security for the world and its inhabitants is heightened in inverse proportion to the number of nuclear-armed nations. As China’s stake in the stability and security of the global economic system soars, its own security interests in non-proliferation logically should be as keen those of the United States and its allies. Nothing would establish mutual confidence more than the two states joining to block, once and for all, the volatile regime in North Korea from strengthening its nascent nuclear weapons capability.
For these reasons and more, Sino-American strategic cooperation is a tantalizing prospect. Yet hard work will be required in Washington and Beijing if it is to be won, because centrifugal forces are at work.
In the U.S., decision-makers are dangerously distracted from future geopolitical possibilities with China. Abroad, America is mired down in two wars and, at home, its politics is nearly paralyzed by an ideological civil war. In a poll in January, a majority of Americans were wary of a threat from Beijing and, to hedge it, they sought buttressed relations with South Korea and Japan even at the expense of China. During the January’s U.S.-China summit, some senior U.S. lawmakers refused an invitation to meet President Hu. Animosity toward trade with China has surged to the point where candidates in the 2010 American midterm elections ran tens of millions of dollars of ads attacking their opponents for being too sympathetic to China. Then there are what Beijing sees as deliberate acts of official U.S. hostility:
- Multi-billion dollar arms sales to Taiwan by the Bush and Obama administrations, which violate bilateral agreements at the core of U.S.-China relations, especially the 1982 Shanghai Communique.
- Strict high tech export controls targeting China. The U.S.'s 1979 Export Control Law, rooted in the Cold War, imposes export controls and economic sanctions on a wide range of commercial and financial transactions with the PRC, especially high tech goods and technologies that theoretically have dual civilian and military uses. To Beijing, such “discrimination” suggests official mistrust toward one of the U.S.’s “Most Favored Nation” trading partners. And repeatedly hectored by American officials for huge trade surpluses with the U.S., Chinese leaders find it suspiciously dichotomous for Washington to restrict sales that could reduce that imbalance.
For its part, China seems to “talk the talk” of cooperation. But facts sometimes betray a lack of interest in grand mutual endeavors with the U.S. I was startled to find that a popular Chinese Internet game features the People Liberation Army attacking “enemy” American soldiers. The game, “Glorious Mission,” was backed by the PLA.
Beijing’s tepid efforts so far to tame the feral regime in North Korea also seems, prima facie, at odds with not only the U.S. but rest of the civilized world.
Stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons would seem to be “low hanging fruit” for any nation pledged to non-proliferation, as the PRC is. Yet, the U.S. has presented Beijing with a “significant list” of Chinese companies it claims are assisting Tehran’s efforts to build nuclear weapons. In September, the Malaysian navy nabbed a Malay flag vessel ferrying devices that could help Iran develop nuclear arms. All were made in China. When I asked a high-ranking government official for an explanation, he merely stated that China “supports any state’s peaceful development of nuclear power.
In his book, Monsoon, Robert Kaplan predicts China will see the Indian Ocean and environs as one of its vital interests, building deep-water ports in littoral Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Myanmar to serve rail routes and pipelines to its politically restive, impoverished interior to the north. When it does, he asserts that Beijing will acquire a two-ocean “blue water” navy to protect its shipping lanes. Kaplan offers the hope that robust Chinese sea power in the Greater Indian Ocean and western Pacific will lead to cooperation with the U.S. to maintain stability and pursue peaceful trade, freedom of navigation and effective joint responses to natural disasters.
Perhaps. But today China is asserting bold extraterritorial claims to the mineral and oil rich waters of Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations, which suggests that cooperation can just as easily be eclipsed by confrontation.
When taking into account the opportunities and real politik of Sino-American relations, H.G. Wells’ famous statement seems especially apt. I’ll paraphrase:
“Civilization is a race between disaster and enlightenment.”
Les AuCoin, a former nine-term U.S congressman from Oregon and professor of government, is a writer and a guest lecturer in Syracuse University’s National Security Studies Program.