By Michael Schuman
THE next 50 years will likely be a much more muddled and complex era than the concept of a Chinese century suggests. It could very well be a time of transition, when the world is dominated by two, somewhat equally matched giants - the US and China - each attempting to pursue its own interests while striving to cope with the other. The course of the coming decades will be determined not by China's rise alone, but by the relationship that emerges between a rising China and the US.
It is impossible to predict which way this crucial relationship will turn. Will it be one based on mutual respect and co-operation, a partnership capable of resolving the world's stickiest problems? Or will it descend into distrust and discord, a new Cold War between two contending powers with contradictory agendas and goals? The nature of US-China relations will affect everything and everybody: the foreign policies of every nation, the structure of the global economy and the resolution of pressing international issues such as climate change and nuclear proliferation.
The early signs don't look promising. In recent months, Washington and Beijing have sparred over a wide range of issues: the value of China's currency, trade, human rights, internet freedom and regional security. Americans generally hold a negative view of China, as a country that abuses dissidents and minorities, steals American jobs, makes shoddy merchandise and gets ahead by flouting the rules of fair play in international trade and business. Some of those perceptions are true; some are not, but in international relations, perception is often more important that reality.
Those jitters have been intensified by Beijing's new assertiveness in world affairs. China's leaders have publicly questioned American economic policy, ignored US opinion on, for example, China's currency regime, and proffered reforms to the US-led international financial system, such as the replacement of the dollar as the premier currency. More fundamentally, to American eyes, China appears as not just an alternative centre of global power to the US but as an alternative economic, political and ideological system that could contend for world influence. Americans believe capitalism and democracy are inseparable, and that their ideals of human rights and personal freedoms are a universal good; China disagrees on both counts. To Americans, China looks like a threat not just to US military, political and economic dominance, but also to their vision of the world.
There is some unfortunate irony in the dismay felt in the US over a rising China, since the China we know today is, to a great degree, a creation of deliberate US policy. Washington's Cold War-inspired decision to back the economic reforms of China's Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s was a key turning point in modern history. By opening up the rich US market to Chinese-made exports, Washington underpinned the success of Deng's market-oriented policies and jumpstarted China's economic miracle.
China simply could not have alleviated poverty, built industry or gained its current economic position without the support of US politicians, businessmen, consumers and investors. The US has also benefited from a reformed China. American firms were able to achieve huge gains in cost savings and productivity by tapping China's vast pool of low-cost labour. That allowed American consumers to enjoy low prices for important consumer goods and an enhanced standard of living.
Over the past decade, the China-US relationship has become oddly symbiotic. China has depended on exports to the US consumer to raise growth and incomes at home. In return, the US has been aided by China's reinvestment of its trade surpluses back into American assets such as government debt, which has supported the value of the dollar and financed US deficits.
The result of 30 years of close economic ties is a significantly different relationship between the world's two great powers than the one that existed during the Cold War of the 20th century. Unlike the US and the Soviet Union, which formed contesting blocs that had hardly any economic connection, the economies - and thus the destinies - of the US and China are so intertwined today that economists have come to refer to the two countries in one word: Chimerica.
Here, in their shared economic interests, is where I hope the US and China will find the common ground to forge a positive relationship for the future. The fact is they have far more reason to co-operate than compete. The two nations need to work together to reduce the huge imbalances their relationship has created - excessive savings in China matched by excessive debt and spending in the US - in order to ensure the healthier global economic growth that benefits them both.
Despite China's burgeoning bravado, it still requires American consumer spending, corporate investment and technology to uplift the hundreds of millions of Chinese still trapped in poverty and upgrade its industry to compete on a global scale. The US, too, needs a growing and accessible China for its own economic future, as a source of new customers and profits for American business.
Will Washington and Beijing choose to pursue mutual economic gain over political and ideological conflict? So far, they have. Although their leaders give each other an occasional joust, the realities of their economic ties have generally resigned such contests to the background. Both sides have tried to maintain cordial, if not warm, relations. Yet I wonder if that can continue as the balance of power between China and the US continues to shift. Will the two find a way to share the top of the global power pyramid, or will they fight over it? The answer to that will determine whether the Chinese century is one of prosperity or poverty.
Michael Schuman is the Asia business correspondent for Time magazine and author of The Miracle: The Epic Story of Asia's Quest for Wealth. This an edited extract from his essay in American Review published by the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.