U.S. policy toward China has often vacillated between idealism and pragmatism, wherein American leaders have promoted democratic and other Western values, and calculated the cost and benefits of various postures toward Beijing. Neither idealism nor pragmatism can, by itself, be used as a standard in U.S. China policy, because Sino-American relations are multidimensional. Both China and the United States represent rich cultural traditions, and their peoples hold strong moral values deeply engrained in their psyches. At the same time, the strategic competition between the two great nations has become increasingly dangerous.
Historically, such competition between major powers often has led to armed conflict. War in the 21st century seems outdated between two nuclear-armed nations, neither of which threatens the territory of the other. Nonetheless, the United States for most of the last century and China more recently have come to define their security in terms of forward defense and power projection capabilities rather than strictly defense of the homeland. That conviction and the resulting policies, strategies, and implementation are steadily pushing Washington and Beijing into military friction in the Western Pacific.
If Sino-American relations are to be determined by security considerations alone, then conflict or a decades-long cold war seem, while not inevitable, not improbable either. The reconciliation of their security differences could, theoretically, be accomplished by a reordering of the balance of power, but that is very difficult to achieve. The best that can be hoped for is mutual determination at the political leadership level to strive in all ways possible to avoid undermining what has become an essential bilateral relationship.
May 6, 2012