Column: Is conflict between U.S. and China inevitable?

Will history repeat itself? A number of international commentators have reexamined the unification of Germany that occurred during the late 18th to mid-20th century as an augury of what may await the United States and China in the 21st century. There are strategic comparisons to be made. China is beginning to look like what imperial Germany was leading up to the world wars, a resurgent continental power. The United States is, like Britain was, primarily a naval power with deep political and economic ties to the continent and the world.

In 1907, a senior official in the British Foreign Office, Eyre Crowe, wrote a brilliant analysis of the European political structure and Germany’s rise. The key question he raised, which has acute relevance today, is whether the crisis that led to World War I was caused by Germany’s nationalistic rise or by German conduct, or both. Was Germany’s goal to create an evolution of German cultural and economic interests across Europe and the world using the dimension of diplomacy? Or did Germany seek a general political hegemony and maritime ascendency, threatening the independence of her neighbors and ultimately the existence of England. According to Crowe, a powerful German navy was built regardless of the goal, which eventually threatened the rest of the world during the period of time covering the world wars.

If Crowe were to analyze the contemporary scene involving China and the United States, he might emerge with a judgment comparable to his 1907 analysis of the unification of Germany. The United States and China demonstrate continental expressions of cultural identities. Both countries have historically been driven to visions of universality by their economic and political achievements, and their people’s irrepressible energy and self confidence, an expression of nationalistic spirit overall. As a consequence, a significant tension rise between both countries is inevitable, exacerbated by the fact that both countries exhibit strong ideologies.

Regarding the political dimension, no matter how much China commits itself to a peaceful expansion of its economic and military capabilities, conflict is inherent in the United States and China relations. In fact, China’s GNP could overtake ours in the near future, making them the world’s number one economic power. In any event, we are involved in a marathon contest with them both economically and militarily. According to sources, it is the feeling of Chinese officials that the competition is essentially ‘zero sum’, meaning that the only alternative to total success is humiliating failure.

Keep in mind that the rise of China is not primarily the result of its expanding military and economic strengths and viabilities; but equally reflects a somewhat declining American competitive position, expressed by obsolescent infrastructure, inadequate attention to research and development to promote an expanding economy, and a seemingly dysfunctional government. As great a nation that we are, no problem that we face is insurmountable. Furthermore, we are not condemned to a collision course.

China and the United States must focus on a shared long term stake in the international system. Building strategic trust and engaging in discussion of mutual restraint will prove to be a difficult an occasional ambiguous process, but must be an integral part of our relations.

The United States and China need to transcend the ordinary operations of great power rivalry. Wisdom and patience need to be an integral part of each country’s conduct. If that fails, the inevitable uncertainty surrounding the intentions of each country would be deemed insurmountable, and the weight of history would overwhelm the imperative for a new departure. Under these circumstances, the United States would defend its interests by traditional means. What this means is that the advocates of confrontation will not be vindicated by militarily aggressive actions. Those who inherit the ensuing conflict will still be obligated to produce a new and better world order. In the end, history lauds only those nations that attempt to promote reconciliations of societies.

Bill Chevalier is a Peterborough resident.

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