But it is also true that the United States allowed China to rise because it was so supremely self-confident that it would always remain on top. China's benign rise was a result of American neglect, not a result of any long-term strategy. China acted strategically; America did not. After the 9/11 attacks, for instance, the United States focused on the Middle East instead of the rise of China, leading Hong Kong journalist Frank Ching to write, "The fact is, it's not going too far to say that China owes a huge debt of gratitude to Osama bin Laden."
America has been sensitive to criticisms about its lack of a long-term strategy. I can speak about this from personal experience. In February 2009, Hillary Clinton visited China on her first overseas visit as U.S. secretary of state. I wrote at the time:
[T]here's little evidence Clinton has engaged in any serious strategic thinking about U.S.-China relations. If she had, she would have asked some big questions. Traditionally, relations between dominant powers and emerging powers have been tense. This should have been the norm with China and the United States. Yet China has emerged without alarming Americans. That's close to a geopolitical miracle. Who deserves credit for it? Beijing or Washington? China seems to have a clear, comprehensive strategy. The United States has none.
Officials in Washington reacted angrily to this column. A senior official at the National Security Council called up the Singaporean Embassy in Washington to complain about a Singaporean criticizing U.S. foreign policy -- even though, in theory, America welcomes debate and a free marketplace of ideas.
I also tell this story to illustrate how sensitive the establishment in Washington has become to any discussion on the nature of Sino-American relations. The real truth about this relationship is that, while there is a lot of calm on the surface, tension is brewing below. I am convinced that there is great simmering anger in Beijing about being pushed around callously by Washington. The Chinese resent, for instance, allegations of Chinese cyberspying that make no mention of America's own activities in this area. The Chinese do not believe that they are the only ones playing this game.
Given the many simmering tensions, it would be unwise to assume smooth sailing ahead for the United States and China. The need to cooperate is rising each day, as is the potential for a major U.S.-China misunderstanding. In November 2011, then-Secretary Clinton announced loudly and boldly a "pivot" to Asia, signifying a turning point in U.S. foreign policy that would reduce the focus on the Middle East. Barack Obama's administration took pains to avoid saying that this was America's response to a rising China, but nobody, including China, was fooled. Other countries saw it as a clear signal that Sino-American geopolitical competition was heating up. The logical consequence is therefore not difficult to figure out: We should be prepared for global turbulence if the U.S.-China relationship follows the millennial old patterns and no longer remains on an even keel.