Henry Kissinger’s January 13, 2010, column in the Washington Post, “Avoiding a U.S.-China cold war,” lays out the former secretary of state’s vision for the future of U.S.-China relations on the eve of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States. In classic Kissinger style, he offers a geo-strategic vision for how the world’s two dominant powers of the 21st century should get along. “The aim should be to create a tradition of respect and cooperation so that the successors of the leaders meeting now continue to see it in their interest to build an emerging world order as a joint enterprise.” A lofty goal, to be sure, but is building a new world order with China as a joint enterprise in America’s best interests?
Dr. Kissinger notes that both President Hu and President Barack Obama “face an opinion among elites in their countries emphasizing conflict rather than cooperation.” The Chinese fear containment by the U.S.; American strategic thinkers are concerned about China’s global economic reach and its growing military capabilities. “Care must be taken lest both sides analyze themselves into self-fulfilling prophecies. . . A Cold War between them would bring about an international choosing of sides, spreading disputes into internal politics of every region at a time when issues such as nuclear proliferation, the environment, energy and climate require a comprehensive global solution.”
What the two sides require to avoid conflict and build a new world order, Kissinger asserts, is “an overarching concept of interaction. . . Reconciling the two versions of exceptionalism is the deepest challenge of the Sino-American relationship.”
While Dr. Kissinger is correct about the potential for conflict between the U.S. and China, and that we should strive to avoid it, I disagree with how he proposes we should accomplish that objective.
I do not believe that the U.S. and China can reconcile “two versions of exceptionalism” without unacceptably altering the definition of American Exceptionalism. I don’t believe the world’s oldest and most robust democracy, where the people and their freedom are paramount, can share a vision for a new world order with a country whose vision of exceptionalism is based on a 5,000-year history and culture of the people’s subservience to emperors and party leaders. Yes, China has evolved into a burgeoning state-directed capitalist country; but one-party rule still prevails. China still lags behind the Western democracies in political freedom and human rights.
Freedom is on the decline around the world. “Freedom in the World 2011,” a report by Freedom House, a Washington, D.C.-based foundation established by Eleanor Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie, documents the longest continuous period of freedom’s decline since it began compiling the annual index nearly 40 years ago. What message do we send to those peoples that seek freedom and democracy if we behave as if there is a moral equivalence between the American and Chinese models of government and their political philosophies? Do we not wish to compete vigorously with China on the battlefield of ideas? Do we not look forward to that day, no matter how far away, when China itself embraces democratic principles and values, as the Chinese on Taiwan already have embraced them?
The U.S. and China have struggled for three decades to find an overarching concept for their interaction. There have been thousands of high-level political, economic, cultural, academic, and military interactions aimed at promoting understanding and cooperation, and much has been accomplished. Still, critical foreign policy and national security relationships remain strained, as witnessed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s visit to China this month. The U.S. continues to search for common ground with China’s defense establishment, to little avail.
The principle obstacle, of course, is China’s continuing demand that the U.S. cease arms sales to a democratic Taiwan while China and Taiwan remain far from reconciling their differences and China’s military threat to Taiwan continues to grow. It is not at all clear that the progress that has been made in China-Taiwan relations to date will not regress should Taipei not meet Beijing’s increasing demands.
While China also desires to avoid a conflict with the U.S., it views the United States as its most likely potential enemy. It conducts cyber attacks against us on a daily basis. It travels the world buying up minerals and other strategic resources with its vast foreign exchange reserves, and it modernizes its military, acquiring capabilities intended to deny the U.S. access and influence in the Asia-Pacific region. Those American strategic thinkers Dr. Kissinger refers to have just cause for concern.
Six U.S. presidential administrations now, amply staffed with China experts, have worked long and hard to build a cooperative and friendly relationship with China. They have learned the hard way, however, that China does not seek partnership in building a new world order; it seeks one that it alone will dominate. America cannot afford to wake up one day and discover that it has heeded Dr. Kissinger’s advice, but China has not.
This does not mean that conflict with China is inevitable. It is not. What it means is that China is a competitor. It’s a competitor for resources, for access and influence, and as a role model for other countries. Where we can cooperate to benefit our mutual interest and global challenges, we should. Where we have fundamental disagreements, we must stand fast. And we should never believe that we can compromise our interests in one area for progress in another. This is the only overarching concept for interaction that’s necessary and the only one that can survive an unpredictable future.
Ed Ross is the President and Chief Executive Officer of EWRoss International LLC, a company that provides global consulting services to clients in the international defense marketplace. He publishes commentary at EWRoss.com.