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US Should Support a Strong China

Posted: 09/24/2015
Lee H. Hamilton

This week Chinese President Xi Jinping is embarking on his first state visit to the U.S., and his arrival comes at a critical juncture in the relations between the world's two biggest superpowers.

As I have previously written here in Huffington Post, America's relationship with China is the most important bilateral relationship in the world today. The international community watches this relationship intently, recognizing that many of the greatest challenges currently facing our planet will not be solved without our two countries working closely together.

U.S.-Sino relations also occupy a steady place in our national discourse, and nowhere is that more evident than on the political campaign trail. U.S. politicians may possess a great many failings, but one area in which they're quite adept is in bashing China, especially when a presidential election approaches.

Recognizing a good target when they see it, this year's candidates are quick to characterize China as a major threat to our national security and to our economic interests, and they express their displeasure by arguing that President Obama should not meet with President Xi.

Don't be surprised, however, when the next president changes his or her tune and suddenly starts referring to our relationship with China as "complicated." Taking the oath of office has a funny way of calming certain political rhetoric.

Generally speaking, bashing China is not, as several political pundits have noted, as easy as it once was, a new reality that reflects America's many interconnections with China, a growing power. Contenders for high office take potshots at China, while state and local officials, as we have seen this week in Seattle, clamor for Chinese investments. Our two economies and educational systems are deeply intertwined. Currently around 275,000 Chinese students study in the U.S., while 25,000 Americans study in China. Additionally, despite some sharp disagreements, our nations have mutual interests in combating terrorism, containing nuclear proliferation and addressing global climate change.

For the U.S., China is arguably the most important country in the world because of our economic ties and Chinese dominance in East Asia. Clearly, though, numerous tensions continue to test the relationship between our two countries. Beneath the pomp of President Xi's visit lies a confrontational mood. We have concern over Chinese computer hacking and cyber espionage, which will be a major and difficult discussion point during President Xi's visit. We take major issue with China's human rights policy and its internal crackdown of civil liberties. We believe the Chinese should adopt a more persuasive and forceful approach with North Korea over that nation's ongoing nuclear weapons development. We condemn their aggressive actions, including the building of artificial islands in the South China Sea, but simultaneously cooperate on challenging issues like climate change and counter terrorism.

Despite these and other tensions, our policy should not be to demonize and distance ourselves from China. Such measures only serve to destabilize Asia. We want the Chinese to contribute to world governance and stability. To this end, we should look for ways to pursue common ground with China. Our policy should contain a balance of collaboration and resistance to major concerns we have with Chinese policy.

We need to convince the Chinese to properly adjudicate its territorial disputes in the South China Sea and to be more assertive in helping to ensure North Korea reduces its nuclear efforts. Certainly, we need to speak up forcefully about China's repeated human rights violations and continue to push for greater autonomy for Taiwan and Hong Kong.

At the same time, we should recognize that China is our largest trading partner and the dominant power in East Asia. China currently accounts for 12 percent of the global economy and, in recent years, a quarter of global economic growth. Furthermore, one in five people on the planet is Chinese.

Among other activities, we should seek areas of potential collaboration with the Chinese, including negotiating a greater role for China within the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Our relationship with China is complex, broad and deep, with vast areas of cooperation and confrontation. We want to support China's move toward a market- and consumer-driven economy. If the notion of a strong Chinese economy benefiting our own financial sector sounds somewhat odd, consider just how profoundly gyrations in the Chinese stock market have affected us in recent years. Decades ago, if someone told you that the financial dealings of a communist country in the Asian market would dramatically impact the New York Stock Exchange, you would have been appalled, but that's exactly what often happens.

We have to accept the fact that China is both a great power and a developing nation with enormous potential. Skillful diplomacy and cooperation with China can lead to substantial benefits for our two countries and the world at large. We have to work everyday to reduce the existing tensions between our two nations, while at the same time firmly adhering to our values and interests. It is not an easy balance to strike. But the more we get caught up in conflict, the more we undermine our efforts to expand our economic and political influence and bring peace and stability to an increasingly important part of the world.

Lee H. Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs; Chairman, Center on Congress at Indiana University. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999