American foreign policy for the past decade has centered on the Middle East: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran's nuclear ambitions, terrorism, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and energy concerns. But in the coming years our nation will encounter a host of global issues linked to China, whose burgeoning economic centers, possession of nuclear arms, and increased clout have already begun to impact the lives of Americans on a daily basis.
Sino-American relations pose a challenge that could lead to misunderstandings and potential clashes with the United States because of a failure on our part to accurately grasp the mindset and capabilities of the Chinese government. Policymakers should begin to craft intelligent solutions to potential future dilemmas.
The world witnessed the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics as a testament to China's incredible rise to power. This portrayal was exactly what the Chinese government intended, as it saw the Olympics as a means to showcase China's vitality. Nonetheless, observers should not confuse theatrics with raw power. Despite China's rapid growth in the past two decades, it faces numerous obstacles such as environmental degradation, widening social disparity, and the yet-to-be-seen impacts resulting from an economic drawdown.
The Olympics highlighted the gravitas that Chinese leaders place on events watched internationally. President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger used their great understanding of Chinese leadership to score a Cold War triumph in opening relations with China. Nixon and Kissinger realized the importance that Chinese leaders place on appearances and the concept of saving face. For this same reason, today's policymakers should separate China's public displays of feats with realities on the ground. If China faces domestic upheaval or economic destabilization, this would impact its approach to foreign affairs as Chinese leaders could resort to military action to defuse internal dissent.
The world saw China's destruction of an aging weather satellite in January 2007 as an irresponsible and provocative act. But this action underscored that Chinese military leaders have grasped the importance of C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance). The Chinese understand that space and computer networks are the new frontier. Additionally, space capabilities and especially space exploration appeal to the pride of the Chinese government and its people, who eagerly seek to identify themselves as a developed country within the ranks of Western nations.
On closer analysis, depicting China as a threat to space and cyber-security is perhaps hasty when one contrasts NASA's budget of $17 billion with China's stated $500 million space budget. Its recent supercomputer, the seventh most powerful in the world, made headlines but China still has leaps and bounds to make before it can even dream of matching the United States in computing power. For example, China possesses a mere 16 supercomputers in comparison to America's 291.
The news media tend to exaggerate or selectively interpret opinions regarding China's military might. Evaluations of its military capabilities should be tempered with its reputed weaknesses before assigning any value to those capabilities. But further clouding the issue is the country's shrouded approach to military modernization.
The People's Liberation Army Navy's participation in policing piracy in the Gulf of Aden is seen as a positive step toward achieving respectability by responding to a global concern. This action, however, could easily be interpreted as a means to test military systems and an expansion of China's military might. But the mission also exposes the unproven nature of China's military and its inability to project power.
News of China's economic and military advancement has fueled debate within the United States over China's capabilities and intentions. The debate often assumes that it will soon become a peer competitor with the United States. However, any view of China should be tempered by the fact that its recent relative rise in power still greatly pales in comparison to the absolute power of the United States. We should not approach China with trepidation but rather with a balanced understanding of its strengths and flaws.