It looks, at first, like a classic story of imperial rise and fall: the West's confidence in its institutions and economies has been badly shaken by the financial crisis, while China has increased its global role and basked in the vindication of its more state-dominated development model. Having grown accustomed to dominance, many Americans now find China's boom unsettling. After all, two states like this are historically expected to clash.
Yet that clash is not guaranteed. What happens next will depend in large part on how Washington leads. China and the United States could easily become antagonistic. But things could unfold much more positively—if leaders on both sides recognize how many interests they share.
That's not to say it will be easy. The two countries share a lot of historical baggage. For a century and a half, China smarted over its domination by the West, leaving it with a deep sense of humiliation. But for years now, China's economic miracle has been easing its insecurity. As confidence has grown, China has begun abandoning its tendency to define itself as oppressed and exploited. Beijing has also begun working hard to reassure the planet that its debut on the world stage will be harmonious. As a result, China is now in the right frame of mind to begin fashioning a new sort of partnership with the West.
Creating such a relationship will still take enormous forbearance. For China, it will mean vaulting over its revolutionary ideology and resisting the temptations of hypernationalism. And for the United States, it will mean recognizing that, even though its supremacy is waning, China need not become an adversary. Americans must come to terms with the reality that their own vaunted democratic system has often failed them—by letting the economy run off a cliff, for example—and that China's one-party system, which is able to gather information, formulate policies, and then effect them quickly—clearly has its advantages.
China and America also have plenty to build on. The two countries have an unusually strong sentimental and historical bond. Thanks to a century of U.S. missionary activity in China, many Chinese admire America's generosity, entrepreneurialism, and fair--mindedness—even if they often resent U.S. power and self-righteousness.
More important, the two countries now face, and must work together to solve, two critical questions: how to construct a new financial architecture and how to solve climate change. Take the economy: the U.S. relies on China to fund its debt, and China relies on the U.S. to buy its goods. While Americans have started to save more and Chinese to consume more, this codependency is not about to end. So without China participating in the rebuilding of a new post-crisis economic architecture, both countries could run into serious trouble. And they know it.
Climate change is even more urgent. The U.S. and China together produce almost 50 percent of the world's -greenhouse-gas emissions. Unless they find a way to stop hiding behind each other and start dealing with this problem, it will not matter what all the other well-intentioned states do. Everyone will suffer.
So the challenge is not whether the U.S. and China can draw closer, but how to get them to recognize that they already are intimately intertwined. Fate has bound them together, and they must find effective ways to collaborate. Fortunately, this is the very definition of common interest. And there is nothing like common interest—and a looming sense of common threat—to form the basis of a strong, productive relationship.