The Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World

October 22, 2012
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

A Chinese delegation buys US$ 4.3 billion worth of soybeans in Iowa earlier this year.

President Obama and candidate Romney are scheduled to spend 15 minutes of their debate on foreign policy discussing the rise of China and tomorrow’s world; a topic selected by moderator Bob Schieffer and announced in advance by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

China looms large in the imagination of the U.S. public and our government officials. It is replacing the old Soviet Union as a focus of U.S. defense planning and the Japan of the 1980’s as an economic rival. But that rising China, the China we read about in books and newspapers, the China we see on film and television is not the China I know through personal experience. As I watch the debate this evening I will be listening to discover how the candidates perceive a place where I have lived and worked for a good part of the last quarter century.

President Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, largely focused on China, has failed, in my view. No one in the region, neither traditional U.S. allies nor the Chinese, knows what it means. The idea behind the “pivot” policy is to focus more attention on our relationships with Japan, South Korea and other friendly Asian nations in order to address a rising China from a position of solidarity and strength. But following the pivot the region is fraught with long dormant territorial disputes that are now moving front and center as allies lobby for U.S. military support and China develops a fear of containment. The spreading antagonism from these disputes is dividing our two strongest alliesdisrupting regional trade, and undermining U.S. efforts to cooperate with China on climate change, trade, energy, finance and emerging international issues such as the crisis in Syria.

Candidate Romney would double down on the “pivot” policy. In addition to his bold but dubious pledge to launch a trade war the day he takes office by declaring China a “currency manipulator”—a promise Romney supporters such as Henry Kissinger and Hank Greenberg believe he cannot and will not honor—Romney plans to spend trillions of dollars packing the region with more military hardware. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, the head of Mr. Romney’s Asia team called for a “mix of capabilities that have yet to be developed, such as long-endurance drones, a possible next-generation manned bomber, new long-range conventional missiles, and perhaps stealthy arsenal ships loaded with precision weapons.”

The “pivot” policy developed by the Obama administration and fortified by the Romney campaign is a reflection of their shared preoccupation with the old belief that armed conflicts must arise between rising and falling nations. This belief is implicit in Schieffer’s question as well. It makes sense that concerns about China’s military and uncertainties about how it might be used has led people to look at those issues. Both the President and his challenger hope to avoid war through a carefully calibrated combination of diplomacy and military force. But they also appear to approach what is a very broad relationship through the narrow confines of an antiquated theory of great power relations that obscures their perception of what China’s rise means to the 1.4 billion people who live there.

During the past three decades hundreds of millions of Chinese people have managed to raise themselves out of poverty. Despite all the country’s many problems, including the failings of its government, almost everyone over the age of thirty understands the Chinese people are experiencing unprecedented levels of personal security and prosperity. For most of the population, today is better than yesterday, and their expectation is that tomorrow will be better than today. That kind of optimism can be a powerful force for continued peace and prosperity.

Outside of the relatively small cadre of Western educated Chinese intellectuals who see the world and their country through the same narrow lens as the presidential candidates and their advisers, few Chinese people think about the United States as a threat to their continued good fortune. And few could imagine that the people of the United States would feel threatened by their comparatively modest prosperity. They don’t see the relationship in zero sum terms, where every Chinese gain must mean an inevitable U.S. loss.

The rapprochement between the governments of the United States and China that has held for the past four decades has been a net plus of considerable proportions for the people of both nations. There are serious challenges ahead of us, especially in the areas of climate change, food and energy security and the sustainability of the global environment. We should expect our leaders to come before us with potential solutions to these problems, rather than a preoccupation with historical forces supposedly at work in the rise and fall of nations.

China is a fifth of humanity that is reaching out to claim its fair share of what our shrinking planet has left to give. The just and understandable aspirations of the Chinese people for a better life present economic and environmental challenges that must be met with scientific ingenuity and technological innovation. They cannot be resolved with grand strategies and military hardware. Instead of listening to who is going to be tougher on China, I hope to learn which candidate is more likely to muster the political courage to push for greater cooperation between China and the United States and the leadership skills to make it happen.