How to Stay Friends with China

Zbigniew Brzezinski believes the president can redefine relations with China when Hu Jintao visits this month.

Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Hu Jintao of China talk at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, September 25, 2009
Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Hu Jintao of China talk at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, September 25, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

Chinese president Hu Jintao comes to Washington this month for what could turn out to be one of the most important bilateral visits of the Obama presidency. According to former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, writing in The New York Times, the president should use the visit to redefine Sino-American relations.

China and the United States have been far from cooperative in recent months. Even as both powers remain heavily interdependent economically, discord has emerged on monetary and climate policy. With America mired in recession, protectionism rears its ugly head once more while China, still rising, has become more assertive.

In terms of foreign policy there has been considerable animosity as well. Brzezinski points out that Washington’s closeness to India has led the Chinese to intensify their relations with Pakistan. China’s seeming lack of concern over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and November’s shelling of a South Korean island fuel American apprehension about China’s policy on the peninsula at the same time. China’s revisionist posturing in the South China Sea moreover has antagonized neighbors in Southeast Asia and strengthened the belief that China stopped rising peacefully.

“The worst outcome for Asia’s long-term stability,” according to Brzezinski, “would be a drift into escalating reciprocal demonization. What’s more, the temptations to follow such a course are likely to grow as both countries face difficulties at home.”

With regard to monetary policy, tension is evident today. The United States want China to appreciate its currency which keeps Chinese exports artificially underpriced. China won’t however as long as it has millions living in poverty and many millions more dependent on cheap exports to the West. Instead, it points to the Americans’ own expansionary policy as another way to protect domestic manufacturing.

What Brzezinski recommends both presidents to do is outline the principles of their countries’ cooperation in a formal declaration. The Sino-American partnership should have a wider mission than national self-interest, he believes. It should be guided by the moral imperatives of the twenty-first century’s unprecedented global interdependence.

Such a joint charter should, in effect, provide the framework not only for avoiding what under some circumstances could become a hostile rivalry but also for expanding a realistic collaboration between the United States and China. This would do justice to a vital relationship between two great nations of strikingly different histories, identities and cultures — yet both endowed with a historically important global role.

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