With the visit of President Hu Jintao, it is important to remember that despite any antagonism or fear expressed to China, our nation faces no serious alternative to constructively engaging this emerging nation. It is in our national interest to work with China as a friend.
China has gone through immeasurable change since the beginning of its reforms in 1978. The economy has moved strongly in a market direction. Three hundred million people have been lifted out of poverty, and China has gone from being on the verge of starvation to being the world’s workshop. But as the Chinese will readily admit, there is still a long way to go. Americans must acknowledge and welcome this enormous progress. Many of our citizens may not realize it, but China has made great strides in the direction of openness and continues to do so.
America also must realize it is both part of and a beneficiary of this transformation. America and China are major trading partners. Furthermore, the Chinese economic boom is vital to global growth and our prosperity. If we take an antagonistic attitude towards China we risk our mutually beneficial economic relationship and potentially our own prosperity.
China does not have to be our enemy. The Middle Kingdom is starting to assert itself in the world — but how can one expected it do otherwise as it develops as a nation? More importantly, the two main concerns for both the Chinese government and the Chinese people are stability and economic growth. Competition with the United States would frustrate this goal. Hence, I do not believe the Chinese leadership seeks this. Furthermore the Chinese people are not inherently anti-American; if anything, they are often fans of the United States. However, if America seems hostile, this attitude could change. China has also not historically been an overly-expansionist nation. Even under Mao Zedong, China was always more concerned with domestic issues than with international ones.
But antagonism from the United States will only help factions within China that wish to see a more aggressive stance taken towards Uncle Sam. Meanwhile, engagement will bolster the standing of those who seek constructive engagement. Thus, we have a role to play in internal power struggles in China. China is not our enemy now, but we can make the country one if we wish.
There remain significant differences between the United States and China. We must make sure that China is aware of these differences and must strongly and firmly encourage them to move in directions we would like to see them move. We also must remain vigilant in case China does embark on a path that would make it a real threat. But we must act in a friendly, non-antagonistic manner.
We also must remember our many common interests with China. We are obviously both dependent on a functioning world economy and on each other’s economic growth. We both face threats from terrorists and are concerned with stability in Central Asia. We both wish to see a stable global energy system. And we both worry about North Korea.
Therefore we must continue to behave towards China in a manner befitting these concordances. Our trading with them will make our relations friendlier. We must seek to work together on issues of common interest. Public figures should not engage in paranoid China-baiting. Americans who are concerned about specific issues with the Chinese government and people can continue to make sure their voices are heard, but should nonetheless avoid alienating China. Doing so may ultimately lead to China’s backstopping on progress.
Finally, I challenge those who advocate a hostile stance towards China to offer an alternative to constructive engagement. China has become such a major presence in the world, especially economically, that if we cut off ties, they will easily find somewhere else to go. Cold War-style competition would be ludicrous. Some may be looking to find a new Soviet Union, but China is very different. It is not a state devoted to global domination with an economy devoted to the military. The Chinese show no signs of needing to be contained; their system will not collapse under the weight of military spending and a non-functioning economy. But there is perhaps one lesson to learn from our experience with the Soviets: detente, and especially the Helsinki Accords, raised awareness of human rights issues in the Soviet Union and help contribute to the collapse of totalitarianism. Working with China, we can open their citizens to our ideals and make a major contribution towards positive change.
I thus warmly welcome President Hu to Yale.
Alex Yergin is a junior in Silliman College.