An expanding, industrializing, authoritarian state is on the rise to counter the United States and usher in either World War III or, at the very least, a second Cold War. As China begins to assert its power in the Asian sphere, policymakers and pundits within the United States have typecast the Chinese as the next Soviet Union. They over-hype China’s growing role in world affairs in order to secure more defense spending, realign the military to combat a Pacific threat and generally avoid the kind of dialogue that is necessary to manage China’s rise rather than prevent it.
Perhaps I am too much of an idealist, but I happen to think that we can learn lessons from history rather than doom ourselves to have it repeat. The Cold War sucked America into Korea and Vietnam based on balance of power politics. The United States funded Osama Bin Laden’s Mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan and simultaneously supported Iraq and Iran in a bloody conflict spanning eight years – all in the name of quietly balancing the periphery of the Cold War. Now, as experts and politicians agree that China could be America’s next great strategic threat, we should learn from the past and look for ways to build cooperation instead of confrontation.
For anyone who claims that China has become too great a threat already or that it is unwilling to negotiate in the face of confrontation – they are simply wrong. China’s “hard power” – its military capabilities – are nowhere near the level of the United States’ at present. A confrontation in the next few years over Taiwanese independence or access to oil would lead to a decisive victory for the United States. Perhaps realizing this, China is clearly willing to engage in diplomacy over military action. Early in President Bush’s first term, before terrorism became a national preoccupation, there was an incident where an American spy plane was caught in Chinese territory. Some predicted that this incident would be the catalyst to a Sino-American war. The event, however, ended peacefully – even under the then incredibly realist Bush foreign policy doctrine. The authoritarian Chinese government, in this instance and in others, has shown that it is willing to play nice on the world stage.
With this in mind, it is clear that China is a growing power. The increasingly industrial nation has a great need for oil and resources that it will want to secure in order to continue its rapid growth. The United States can, however, seek to manage China’s growth so that it matures into a cooperative partner rather than a secretive foe. Bringing China into world politics and treating it like the regional power it already has become will give China a stake in world stability – and the responsibility to help maintain that stability.
Left alone, China probably will continue to improve its military capability and influence around the world. However, ceding some influence in the Asian hemisphere to the Chinese could improve world stability, avoid war and lighten the burden on the United States as the lone superpower. America can remain a “superpower” with global influence even if rising regional powers are allowed to influence their regional concerns. By managing the growth of regional powers and bringing them into international institutions, their responsibility for world security grows with their capabilities – much in the same way American growth coincided with global responsibility over the last century.
American policymakers must realize now what global hegemony has brought. The expansiveness of American power has let other nations sit back on the world stage to criticize U.S. policy without taking the moral imperative to act in their own right. We have become the world’s policemen and subsequently been the target of everything from European criticism to Islamist terrorism. If the United States was willing to cede a small amount of authority to regional powers like China, the responsibility for maintaining security in Asia could be a joint exercise between the two nations. Although American hegemony would become less prevalent, the ills that befall a hegemonic state would also begin to subside.
History is our greatest teacher. Rather than sit back and let the pundits decide that our destiny is a Cold War with an emergent China, we can learn from our mistakes and make the next century one of cooperation, not confrontation, between the world’s great powers.
-The writer, a junior majoring in Interntional affairs, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.
This article appeared in the May 23, 2005 issue of the Hatchet.