In recent years, China’s encounter with the modern, Western-designed international system has evoked in the Chinese elites a special tendency in which they debate—with exceptional thoroughness and analytical ability—their national destiny and overarching strategy for achieving it.

The world is witnessing, in effect, a new stage in a national dialogue about the nature of Chinese power, influence and aspirations that has gone on fitfully since the West first pried open China’s doors.

The previous stages of the national-destiny debate asked whether China should reach outward for knowledge to rectify its weakness or turn inward, away from an impure if technologically stronger world. The current stage of the debate is based on the recognition that the great project of self-strengthening has succeeded and China is catching up with the West. It seeks to define the terms on which China should interact with a world that—in the view of even many of China’s contemporary liberal internationalists—gravely wronged China and from whose depredations China is now recovering.

An example of the “triumphalist” line of thinking is in Col. Liu Mingfu’s 2010 book “China Dream.” In Liu’s view, no matter how much China commits itself to a “peaceful rise,” conflict is inherent in U.S.-China relations. The relationship between China and the U.S. will be a “marathon contest” and the “duel of the century.” Moreover, the competition is essentially zero-sum; the only alternative to total success is humiliating failure.

Neither the more triumphalist Chinese analyses nor the American version—that a successful Chinese “rise” is incompatible with America’s position in the Pacific, and the world—have been endorsed by either government, but they provide a subtext of much current thought. If the assumptions of these views were applied by either side—and it would take only one side to make it unavoidable—China and the U.S. could easily fall into an escalating tension.

The question ultimately comes down to what the U.S. and China can realistically ask of each other. An explicit American project to organize Asia on the basis of containing China or creating a bloc of democratic states for an ideological crusade is unlikely to succeed—in part because China is an indispensable trading partner for most of its neighbors. By the same token, a Chinese attempt to exclude America from Asian economic and security affairs will similarly meet serious resistance from almost all other Asian states, which fear the consequences of a region dominated by a single power.

The appropriate label for the Sino-American relationship is less partnership than “co-evolution.” It means that both countries pursue their domestic imperatives, cooperating where possible, and adjust their relations to minimize conflict. Neither side endorses all the aims of the other or presumes a total identity of interests, but both sides seek to identify and develop complementary interests.

The issue of human rights will find its place in the total range of interaction. The U.S. cannot be true to itself without affirming its commitment to basic principles of human dignity and popular participation in government. Given the nature of modern technology, these principles will not be confined by national borders. But experience has shown that to seek to impose them by confrontation is likely to be self-defeating—especially in a country with such a historical vision of itself as China. A succession of American administrations, including the first two years of President Barack Obama’s, has substantially balanced long-term moral convictions with case-to-case adaptations to requirements of national security. The basic approach remains valid; how to achieve the necessary balance is the challenge for each new generation of leaders on both sides.

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