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Is The World Big Enough For the United States and China?

Oct 13, 2014
  • Tom Watkins

    President and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, FL

I have been “digging” China for many years. As a youngster, I attempted to dig a hole to China in my backyard after naively believing my mom telling me: “Son, if you dig long enough, you will reach China.”

As a boy of ten, I was intrigued with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) the first time my teacher spoke of “Red China.” I did not learn until later in life that “Red” was a pejorative term, referring to “Communist China.” In 1963, we were still over a decade away from normalized relations with the PRC.

How Times Have Changed

Today many worry that China is poised to eat our lunch as it grows its economic and military might. The Chinese economy seeks what it considers its rightful place as the world’s largest economy – a position it held in 18 of the previous 20 centuries. Many predict they may well reach it in the next few years.

As the tectonic plates of world power shift, there are likely to be eruptions and disruptions.

In an editorial for the state-run People’s Daily, Chinese PLA Professor Han Xudong warns that Beijing should prepare itself for a Third World War.  He notes, “The world has entered an era of new forms of global war based around the Internet and the concept of sea power.”

With Growth Comes Fear

It seems that the only human who may truly like change, is a baby. China’s rise need not come at the U.S.’s demise. Yet many in America – from political and business leaders to “Joe 6-pack” – struggle with the growth and inevitable rise of China.

There is fear and distrust on both sides of the ocean about the true intentions of our respective countries. Many argue there are too many strategic and economic interests between our nations for the most important bilateral relationship on the planet to completely unravel. Going forward, every major world decision will intersect at the corner of Washington, D.C and Beijing. How this relationship is managed will impact our respective people – and all of humanity.

There has been much dialog and speculation around China and the U.S.’s ability to dance around the “Thucydides Trap.” Harkening back to the Peloponnesian War of 431 B.C. to 404 B.C., the “Thucydides Trap” developed when the rising Greek city-state of Athens fought the reigning city-state of Sparta. The Greek historian Thucydides famously wrote, “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.”

Will the fear of a rising China provoke so much fear in the existing world order that it will ultimately lead to conflict between the US and China? It is inevitable that China, as an emerging economic and military power, may cause friction in the relationship by rearranging the chessboard of world politics. We are currently witnessing this reshuffling as China gobbles up commodities around the world to feed its industrial might and makes territorial claims in the East and South China Seas.

China’s neighbors and the rest of the world are attempting to figure out how best to engage an ever-rising, Beijing as it stretches its wings while shaking off a decade of humiliation to regain its rightful place on the world stage.

Making Sense

A pre-eminent China scholar, David M. Lampton, Professor of China Studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the Director of China Studies there, also served as the former President of the prestigious National Committee on United States-China Relations. In his book, Same Bed, Different Dreams: Managing U.S.-China Relations 1989-2000 (University of California Press, 2012), Lampton wrote about many challenges, foreshadowing those that face our two nations today. He clearly spelled out China’s often vastly differing perspectives and views of the world along with its basic orientation that would and have been proven as misunderstandings, resulting in tensions with its old ping pong buddy the United States.

In his book, Lampton argues: “The processes of economic and information globalization, along with the development of international regimes and multilateral organizations, have landed America and China increasingly near one another in the same global bed.” He continues, “But our respective national institutions, interests, leadership and popular perceptions, and the very characters of our two peoples, ensure that our nations have substantially different dreams.” It is this constant struggle, Lampton argues, that has provided the “underlying dynamic” of U.S.-China relations since the end of the Cold War, and will continue to do so in the future.


Having watched China over the years while living in the West, I would suggest the relationship between the U.S. and China would be one that constantly and continuously places our two countries at the entrance to the proverbial fork in the road. Our relationship has the potential of becoming one of great cooperation, collaboration, and engagement. However, it could also degenerate into one of bitter strain, consternation, and conflict.

Moving forward, one of the greatest challenges that leaders in both China and the U.S. must address is the growing fear and apprehension of its own people.  Perception can quickly become reality because, as Mao once lamented, “A single spark can create a raging forest fire.”

In the conclusion of his newly published book, Following The Leader: Ruling China, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, Lampton argues that several forces are contending for primacy in China, and for that matter, in the United States: “Domestic politics, interdependence, big-power realist thinking, and the technologic action-reaction cycle. Given these contending impulses, the way forward is to construct an inclusive balance of forces in Asia that restrains assertive impulses, builds inclusive, multilateral economic and security institutions, and reinforces interdependence, thereby raising the cost of unrestrained conflicts.”

So we come full circle: Is the world big enough for China and the U.S.? The answer must be, “Of course!” The thought of the relationship between our two great nations unraveling is unthinkable and would have disastrous consequences with global reverberations.

Today, I eat peas. And I keep digging in hopes that our respective leaders will follow the cautionary approach embodied in Deng Xiaoping’s motto, mozhe shitou guo he:  “crossing the river by feeling for stones.”

My hope is we will continue to build the educational, economic, scientific, governmental, and people-to-people bridges between the U.S. and China that will enhance the friendship and trust that is necessary for our two countries to prosper. An unstable China makes for an unstable world. We need to keep in mind that our destinies are on many levels inextricably linked.

Let’s move forward with our eyes wide open, building bridges between us with the clear understanding that digging moats or building Great Walls have never been a successful, long term strategy.

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