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How long can Beijing and Washington handle their relationship?

Tom Friedman has a pretty good column today on the future of Sino-American relations, in effect warning that unruly nationalism in China could spell trouble down the road. Money quotation:

The days when Nixon and Mao could manage this relationship in secret are long gone. There are a lot of unstable chemicals at work out here today, and so many more players with the power to inflame or calm U.S.-China relations.

A Sino-American Cold War is not inevitable, perhaps, and it is easy to think of reasons why the two largest economies (and over time, two most significant military powers) might manage to keep their competition within safe bounds. Optimists invoke the usual liberal antidotes to conflict: the growing economic ties between the two countries, China's "socialization" into existing institutions, and the possibility that China will one day become a democracy. Or one may hope that Beijing will realize that overly assertive behavior will quickly provoke balancing behavior by China's neighbors (moving them to align more closely with each other and with the United States), thereby leaving China isolated and worse off overall. And if the United States manages to extricate itself from its Iraqi and Afghan morasses and devotes more attention on Asia, then there might be even less chance of a Sino-American train wreck down the road.

But here's why I'm less optimistic. Assuming China continues to grow economically, it will also increase its military power and thus its capacity to threaten certain U.S. interests. Like any great power, it will tend to view its own "vital interests" more expansively as its power rises, and it will want to do what it can to ensure that others cannot threaten those interests. For example, a rising China that is increasingly dependent on overseas resources and markets will naturally want to make it harder for others to threaten these vital sea lines of communication. To be concerned by these things is not a sign of aggressive expansionism; it is just typical great power behavior. And given that U.S. leaders think they have "vital interest" in virtually every part of the globe, this sort of behavior ought to be easy for Americans to recognize.

Now, if one also assumes that both the United States and China will always be governed by mature, far-sighted, and sensible politicians who won't succumb to xenophobia or threat-mongering, won't be swayed by narrow interest groups, won't let propaganda from self-interested allies warp their judgment, and who will manage each and every crisis with restraint and aplomb, then one might easily conclude that any future rivalry will remain fairly muted.

But if one assumes that occasionally an impulsive, weak, or rambunctious leader will come to power in one of the two countries, or that either state's foreign policy apparatus might at some point be overly influenced by people with more dangerous agendas, or that at some point one of the two will hit a rough patch and tempt the other to seize an advantage, then you'd obviously be more concerned about trouble down the road. And what if this happened in both countries simultaneously?

Now: based on what you know about these two countries, which assumption do you think is more reasonable? Based on past history, I think its safe to assume that sooner or later one side or the other is going to do something stupid. Friedman is clearly worried about social forces in China that might make conflict more likely; I'm also worried about the judgment of people at the top and some of the social forces here at home. And not just today, but for a long time into the future.

Obligatory IR Theory footnote: the discussion above in effect combines a structural realist analysis with a sensitivity to the impact of domestic politics. Structural theory tells you why a rising China creates greater potential for security competition between Washington and Beijing: in the bipolar world that a rising China is gradually creating, the two most powerful states will naturally eye each other warily. But structure alone doesn't make intense conflict (let alone all-out war) inevitable. That will be determined, at least in part, by how well each country's foreign policy apparatus manages things. But note that "managing" doesn't just mean accommodation: it will also require displays of resolve and a careful drawing of "red lines," which also creates the possibility of misunderstanding and miscalculation. And don't forget: If this emerging bipolarity lasts a long time, the challenge lies in managing relations not just for a year or two, but for many decades. Based on what I know about each country's foreign policy establishment, it's hard for me to believe that one (or both) won't blow it sooner or later and lead us into a serious security competition.

PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

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