According to Roskin & Berry (2012), “China has lifted perhaps half a billion citizens out of poverty” (p. 279). That is hundreds of millions of people in a little over half a century – an extraordinary achievement, but one that is rarely mentioned in the US. Instead, pundits and politicians focus on the threats that China poses: to democracy, human rights, the environment, stability in Asia, and the US economy.
Two problematic assumptions underlay such concerns: that America’s relationship with China is necessarily antagonistic, and that it is America’s responsibility to deal with the conflicts that arise from or within Asia. This is a flawed way of viewing relations with Asia, but one that has assumed a dominant voice in our public discourse. Going forward, America would be better served by adopting a more cooperative and less custodial approach to its dealings with these regions. China’s rise, it could be argued, creates as many opportunities for our nation as it does potential problems.
The Chinese President recently stated that his country’s aim is to achieve “A moderately prosperous society by 2020” (Yang, 2012). This modest goal is hard to criticize. However, if we consider the fact that China has a population of over 1.2 billion and the US a little over 320 million, certain consequences follow from approaching this goal: if China achieves a per capita GDP close to that of the US, its overall GDP will make it four times the size of the US’s (Walsh, 2014). This is concerning to many in the West, since this loss of economic power implies an end to America’s global hegemony. China has already surpassed Japan and Germany to become the second largest economy in the world and is poised to pass the US in the near future. The rising Asian power is not going to stunt its growth for the sake of Washington’s ego; in fact, China will “resolutely discard all notions and systems that hinder efforts to pursue development” (Yang, 2012).
As China has risen in power and influence, it has demanded more respect from other nations. But why would it not? Its new economic power is, in large part, based on decades of hard work and social engineering. There is an assumption in the West that an open and democratic society is the only positive direction that a developing nation can move in; that this is the only measure of things “going well.” China has been adamant about its political future having no place for democratic reform, at least not in the sense that Western nations understand it.
There are ways in which China can be successful on its own, non-Western terms, and perhaps even achieve a form of liberal capitalist democracy. China’s President, Xi Jinping, has been promoting a “Chinese dream” – a more collectivist version of the American dream that would allow each Chinese citizen to achieve success through hard work, returning the country to its former glory (Moore, 2013). While China has become more assertive in recent years, there is a conciliatory tone in these announcements – a recognition that they must at least put on a show of addressing some of the criticisms the West has heaped on the nation.
Sino-American relations will likely have a “decisive influence on the course of the twenty-first century” (Freeman, 2011). The shifting balance of power will be difficult to navigate for both nations, but they must decide, on a number of levels, whether it is cooperation and collaboration or competition and conflict that they want to pursue. Ideally, it will be the former, since, as Freeman (2011) comments, “without collaboration between China and America, the world will be a more troubled, less secure, and less prosperous place.”
Painting China as a “threat” or “problem” does not help in establishing future stability as the balance of power shifts. Through effective diplomacy and cultural understanding, Washington has the opportunity to build good relations with China and help guide the rising nation in its new role as global superpower. The mutual distrust and dislike between the two nations is something that can and should be overcome in the coming years. Ultimately, China is focused on its own interests to the same way that the US, Russia, Japan, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and other powerful nation are: it will do and say what is necessary to secure those interests, but not go so far as to endanger them. Within that space, there is room for China to become a powerful ally to America, rather than an socio-political, economic, and military rival.