The China Threat

Can the United States really make a peaceful hand-off of power to authoritarian China?

Joseph S. Nye Jr.'s optimism is laudable ("China's Rise Doesn't Mean War…," January/February 2011). That said, John Mearsheimer was right to say that there are few, if any, examples of preeminent global powers like the United States going quietly into the night. That is particularly true when an ascending power, such as China, advances diplomatic, political, and economic values antithetical to those that have informed the status quo global architecture. It is nonsense to suggest that "America's peaceful overtaking of Britain at the end of the 19th century" -- in which one democratic, Christian, English-speaking, Anglo-Saxon country stood aside for another -- provides a blueprint for China's rise.

That's not to say that World War III is necessarily in the offing. China's military bluster, including the recent high-profile rollout of its new stealth fighter jet and its incipient aircraft carrier, should be taken seriously, but it can be managed. China remains a decade behind the United States in military force projection, battlefield management, and blue-water and space warfare capabilities. Similarly, China's dramatic economic growth and mercantilist trade policies make commercial relations difficult, but not impossible. Even China's large U.S. dollar holdings are less a U.S. liability than a mutual liability, as Beijing would suffer if the dollar lost value.

Indeed, the scenario of Washington and Beijing peacefully cooperating too easily assumes that China's rise will be smooth. In truth, China's constant struggle against chaos renders it inward-looking and unpredictable. It must deal with internal ethnic pressures, uneven development, an outmoded communist ideology that no longer defines national values or civil society, a ruling party in transition, and a widespread and potentially virulent nationalism. Beijing's growth requirements force it to impose predatory trade practices on others; its need for energy and natural resources leads it to threaten its neighbors as well as regions further afield, such as Africa.

Most importantly, China's example, though not threatening today's democracies, is admired by most of the authoritarian world beyond the West. By legitimizing authoritarianism with its economic successes, China has made it more difficult for other countries to claim a democratic future. In short, China remains an existential challenge, not a partner or a friend, to America and the idea of the West.

Stefan Halper
Director, American Studies Program
University of Cambridge
Cambridge, England

Joseph S. Nye Jr. replies:

I agree with much of Stefan Halper's intelligent critique. I do not think that the U.S.-China relationship will look like the Anglo-American accommodation after the war scare of 1895, but neither need it look like the Anglo-German confrontation before World War I. My point was to be wary of misleading historical analogies.

As he says, and as I show in detail in my new book, The Future of Power, China is not about to equal American power for decades (if ever). The United States is not "going quietly into the night." But I think Halper overestimates the attractiveness of the Chinese model to others. In the past two years, as many Chinese have mistakenly succumbed to theories of American decline, their more assertive policies have undercut their relations with India, Japan, South Korea, and the ASEAN countries, and their costly efforts to organize a boycott of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for Liu Xiaobo gained scant support. The "Beijing Consensus" is more appealing to authoritarian countries like Myanmar and Zimbabwe than significant emerging economies like Brazil and India. And few authoritarians have the capacity to implement a Chinese model of economic growth.

Unlike Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, China is not an existential challenge to the United States, but rather a problematic state with which it can develop normal relations of competition and cooperation. My goal in the article was to warn against the exaggerated analogies off which hawks in both countries feed and which can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.


History Matters

Is the peace process doomed until Mahmoud Abbas hangs a portrait of Theodor Herzl in his office?

Aluf Benn asserts that contradictory historical claims have trapped Israelis and Palestinians in their mutual antagonism ("Understanding History Won't Help Us Make Peace," January/February 2011). Not so fast. The conflict in the Levant is not just about competing Israeli and Palestinian narratives. It is also about whether the Palestinian narrative allows for an Israel alongside Palestine, as the Israeli narrative allows for a neighboring Palestinian state. If Palestinians regard Jews as modern-day "Crusaders" and "interlopers" with no ancestral ties to the land, then they do not accept the Jewish people's right to sovereignty, a position that undermines the chance for durable peace.

Benn also claims that debates about the past at the Camp David summit between Yasir Arafat, Ehud Barak, and Bill Clinton resulted in "failure" and "led to the bloodbath of the Second Intifada." But Barak and Clinton are not even partially to blame for any bloodshed. They offered peace, and got violence in return. That seems to be the conclusion drawn by Clinton. In his presidential memoir, My Life, Clinton recounted that when Arafat complimented him by calling him a "great man," the president replied: "I am not a great man. I am a failure, and you have made me one." Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan took a similar view of Arafat. In March 2003, the New Yorker reported that Bandar thought "Arafat's failure to accept the deal in January of 2001 was a tragic mistake -- a crime, really." And Palestinian Communications Minister Imad al-Faluji revealed to the Lebanese paper as-Safir in March 2001: "This intifada was planned in advance, ever since President Arafat's return from the Camp David negotiations."

So let's not dismiss history so quickly, much less gloss over facts relevant to the search for peace.

David Harris
Executive Director
American Jewish Committee
New York, N.Y.

Aluf Benn replies:

I would love to live in a world where the Palestinians, and all other Arabs and Muslims, accept "the Jewish people's right to sovereignty." Or better, in a world where no one doubts or argues against Zionism, just like nobody questions the right of Swedes to live in Sweden. I agree with David Harris that such acceptance would be a better foundation for "durable peace" than the current Palestinian narrative, which views Israelis as modern-day Crusaders.

But I live in the real world, where my country has had to contend with rejection and animosity since its pre-state inception. And in the real world, we need to find realistic ways for dealing with problems. Rather than wish hopelessly for Palestinian re-education and cling to the growingly unbearable status quo until Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hangs Theodor Herzl's portrait on his office wall, we should seek ways to better coexistence knowing that the other side tells a very different story. Israel made peace with Egypt and Jordan, whose peoples have not accepted "Jewish rights" either.

Camp David was ill-prepared and bound to fail. Arafat's position was known in advance, and he viewed the Barak-Clinton peace proposal as too timid. Obviously, this does not justify the ensuing intifada and destruction. But what should be the lesson? Never trust the Palestinians and occupy the West Bank? Or should we instead find better ways of engagement? Even Clinton overcame his insult: Today, he calls for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to fulfill the broken legacy of Yitzhak Rabin.