The fear factor in US-China relations

Daily News Egypt
7 Min Read

Opinion polls indicate that one-third of Americans believe that China will “soon dominate the world, while nearly half view China’s emergence as a “threat to world peace. In turn, many Chinese fear that the United States will not accept their “peaceful rise. Americans and Chinese must avoid such exaggerated fears. Maintaining good US-China relations will be a key determinant of global stability in this century.

Perhaps the greatest threat to the bilateral relationship is the belief that conflict is inevitable. Throughout history, whenever a rising power creates fear among its neighbors and other great powers, that fear becomes a cause of conflict. In such circumstances, seemingly small events can trigger an unforeseen and disastrous chain reaction.

Today, the greatest prospect of a destabilizing incident lies in the complex relationships across the Taiwan Strait. China, which regards Taiwan as an integral part of its territory that has sheltered behind the US navy since the days of the Chinese civil war, vows that any Taiwanese declaration of independence will be met by force.

The US does not challenge China’s sovereignty, but it wants a peaceful settlement that will maintain Taiwan’s democratic institutions. In Taiwan itself, there is a growing sense of national identity, but a sharp division between pragmatists of the “pan-blue alliance, who realize that geography will require them to find a compromise with the mainland, and the ruling “pan-green alliance, which aspires in varying degrees to achieve independence.

The two sides in Taiwan will face off in a presidential election on March 22. Current polls suggest that former Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT) leads Frank Hsieh of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). But some observers fear that the incumbent DPP President Chen Shui-bian will seek a pretext to prevent a defeat for the pro-sovereignty camp. He is currently advocating a referendum on whether Taiwan should join the United Nations, which China views as provocative. Chen replies that it is China “that is acting provocatively today.

America is clearly concerned. Recently, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a news conference that “we think that Taiwan’s referendum to apply to the UN under the name ‘Taiwan’ is a provocative policy. It unnecessarily raises tensions in the Taiwan Strait and it promises no real benefits for the people of Taiwan on the international stage. She also reiterated the administration policy opposing “unilateral threat by either side to change the status quo.

The same day, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates criticized China for unexpectedly curtailing American ship visits to Chinese ports because of American arms sales to Taiwan. According to Gates, he had told Chinese officials that American arms sales were consistent with past policy and that “as long as they continued to build up their forces on their side of the Taiwan Strait, we would continue to give Taiwan the resources necessary to defend itself. Gates added, however, that despite China’s rising defense budget, “I don’t consider China an enemy, and I think there are opportunities for continued cooperation in a number of areas.

In principle, the Taiwan issue need not lead to conflict. With increasing change in China and growing economic and social contacts across the strait, it should be possible to find a formula that allows the Taiwanese to maintain their market economy and democratic system without a placard at the UN.

Thus far, the US has tried to allow for this evolution by stressing two bright lines: no independence for Taiwan and no use of force by China. But, given the danger of incidents that could grow out of political competition in Taiwan or growing impatience in the Peoples’ Liberation Army on the mainland, the US would be wise to encourage more active contacts and negotiations by the two sides.

The US has a broad national interest in maintaining good relations with China, as well as a specific human rights interest in protecting Taiwan’s democracy. The US does not have a national interest in helping Taiwan become a sovereign country with a seat at the UN, and efforts by some Taiwanese to do so present the greatest danger of a miscalculation that could create enmity between the US and China. Already, some Chinese suspect the US of seeking an independent Taiwan as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier for use against a future Chinese enemy. They are wrong, but such suspicions can feed a climate of enmity.

If America treats China as an enemy today, it will ensure future enmity. While we cannot be sure how China will evolve, it makes no sense to foreclose the prospect of a better future. America’s current policy combines economic integration with a hedge against future uncertainty. The US-Japan security alliance means China cannot play a “Japan card. But, while such hedging is natural in world politics, modesty is important for both sides. If the overall climate is one of distrust, what looks like a hedge to one side can look like a threat to the other.

There is no need for the US and China to go to war in this century. Both sides must take care that an incident concerning Taiwan does not lead in that direction. Americans and Chinese must avoid letting exaggerated fears create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Joseph S. Nye, a professor at Harvard University, is author of the forthcoming book The Powers To Lead. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYTP in collaboration with Project Syndicate (

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