Adrift in a Turbulent World

The most important strategic decision the United States will make in the next decade is not about Iraq, Iran or North Korea. It is about China. What will America's basic attitude be toward the rise of China? And similarly, the most important strategic decision that Beijing will make in the next decade is: how should it relate to the United States? Depending on whether the answer

to these questions is "cooperation" or "confrontation," one can imagine two very different 21st centuries. And yet in neither country does one get the sense that there is clarity on this subject. President Hu Jintao's visit to America this week--where he will spend all of an hour with President Bush--is unlikely to change the situation.

In the United States, attitudes toward China remain extremely mixed. Some Americans admire China for its economic success; others are fearful and increasingly combative. Some, particularly in the business community, commend the government for producing what can only be called an economic miracle. Others, particularly in Washington, criticize Beijing for its repressive tactics, and believe that its political and economic system is inherently unstable. As a result, Washington has within it elements that want to contain China and others that want to cooperate with it.

Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick has tried to find an intelligent middle ground. In a speech last fall, he argued that over the past three decades, the United States has helped China move from isolation and poverty to engagement and economic growth. American policy, Zoellick said, is still to support a strong and growing China, but it's also one that pushes Beijing to use its growing power in beneficial ways. "We now need to encourage China to become a responsible stakeholder in the international system," he said. "As a responsible stakeholder, China would be more than just a member--it would work with us to sustain the international system that has enabled its success." Zoellick outlined the list of issues--Sudan, Iran, intellectual-property rights--where Chinese actions are not consistent with this idea of being a stakeholder.

Condoleezza Rice has affirmed Zoellick's approach. But then there's Donald Rumsfeld, who has made far more suspicious and belligerent statements about China, giving the impression that the United States cannot tolerate China's growing military power. All U.S. officials constantly hector the Chinese to open up politically, which many in China see as an attempt to weaken them. One Chinese scholar, who asked to remain anonymous because the Beijing government doesn't like people criticizing the U.S., said to me, "We have moved 300 million out of poverty in the last three decades. And just as we have become powerful, you want to make us ungovernable like Iraq or Nigeria." In Congress, there is an increasingly irresistible temptation to talk tough with China (there's only a political upside, with no downside). These mixed signals make it unclear as to whether the United States wants to accommodate Beijing as a new rising power. For example, when IMF reforms are discussed later this year, will Washington help China to find a place at the table, or block its path?

American policy, for all its inconsistencies, is much clearer than Chinese policy. For most of the period since Deng Xiaoping's days, China has believed that accepting American hegemony was the path to its economic success. But Beijing is now engaged in its own internal debate over whether a confrontation between it and the United States is inevitable. There are those who argue that it is--that America is actively seeking to contain China, and that China must build up its position in Asia and the world to respond from a position of strength. China has made several moves that seem consistent with this approach, trying to create forums that would cut the U.S. out of Asia, and proposing agreements in which all Asian countries pledge to have no "foreign bases" on their soil. On the other hand, Beijing has probably voted more consistently with the United States on the U.N. Security Council than any country other than Britain. It works hard to resolve issues that Washington raises, so that even a critic like Sen. Charles Schumer found Beijing highly responsive when he raised trade and currency problems on his recent visit there.

Chinese foreign policy is still mostly motivated by parochial concerns. Its officials are determined that Taiwan not become an independent country. They seek energy, and take it where they can get it. But this narrow foreign policy means that China is not asking itself large and difficult questions. Does Beijing want to be a stakeholder in the current international system? If so, on what terms? And most important, will it be willing to pay the price that comes with great global power?

When they meet, presidents Bush and Hu should focus less on the pirating of DVDs and start talking about these basic issues. Otherwise, on the greatest long-term strategic issue facing the world, we will remain adrift.