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Seizing the Opportunity to Improve US-China Relations

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In his second term, President Barack Obama has a historic opportunity to improve U.S. relations with China. Incoming President Xi Jinping will welcome American overtures and policies that assist China in addressing its serious domestic problems resulting from rapid economic development -- among them environmental degradation, severe economic inequality and a weak social safety net.

Without an improvement in U.S.-China relations, however, there exists a grave risk that simmering conflicts between the two countries could worsen considerably and lead to a new Cold War. Heightened concerns in the United States, in recent days, about cyberattacks originating in China underscore this danger.

A primary obstacle to sustaining stability and cooperation between the U.S. and China can be found in two fallacies that continue to unduly shape U.S. public opinion: 1) China and the United States are headed on a collision course toward inevitable war; and 2) China's economic rise is occurring at America's expense.

A war with China is no more inevitable than was war with the Soviet Union. Thanks to farsighted political leaders, both Republican and Democratic, the United States reached arms control agreements with the USSR during the Cold War that curtailed the arms race in nuclear weapons, conventional forces and missile delivery systems. Through a process of negotiated mutual threat reduction, those agreements helped prevent a nuclear holocaust.

In the case of China, of course, the U.S. faces far less of a security threat than it did from the Soviet Union. Today, America dwarfs China militarily in both nuclear and conventional forces.

The U.S. nuclear arsenal now exceeds 5,000 warheads and includes approximately 450 ICBMs and 300 submarine-launched missile delivery systems. China possesses a "minimal deterrent" of about 240 warheads and up to 65 land-based ballistic missiles, according to Pentagon figures.

On the conventional side, the U.S. similarly holds overwhelming superiority. To take just one example, the U.S. Navy deploys eleven aircraft carrier battle groups, each equipped with more than 55 advanced fighters and ground-attack aircraft. China, by contrast, has refurbished for training purposes a single Ukrainian-made carrier built in 1984 that it originally purchased as a floating casino.

Despite this reality of American dominance, hawkish politicians, academics and journalists in the United States, over the past decade, have succeeded in hyping the Chinese threat to U.S. security. They typically exaggerate the dangers now posed by China's military forces and cite future, potential capabilities to give credence to their views.

Almost always, hawks obscure several key aspects of the large disparity in military power between the two countries: the U.S. poses a far greater military threat to China than China does to the United States; the U.S. outspends China more than three to one on defense; and advanced U.S. military technology is highly likely to remain well ahead of China for the foreseeable future.

The prognostications of China hawks have nevertheless increased the possibility that the widespread belief in a coming war with China could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As each country "hedges" and ramps up preparations for war, its actions stimulate greater military modernization and more aggressive actions by the other side, magnifying the risk of conflict.

On economic issues, American protectionists who press for measures to block or impede Chinese products, services and investments from entering the U.S. reinforce the widespread fallacy that China's rise is occurring at the expense of the United States. Just the opposite is true.

China is today the largest growth market in the world for U.S. goods and services. Trade with China - the third-largest U.S. export market and leading market for agricultural products -- has aided America's recovery from the 2008 financial crisis.

Looking to the future, the U.S. stands to benefit from billions of dollars in incoming Chinese investment that will reduce production costs for American companies and prices for American consumers, enhance consumer welfare, spur the development of innovative products, and most importantly, result in "in sourcing" -- the creation of hundreds of thousands more American jobs.

Secretary of State John Kerry has emphasized the importance of U.S.-China cooperation. As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he argued convincingly:

"...the simple fact is that we need China, and China needs us. We have to get this relationship right. After all, we are talking about our connection to one-sixth of humanity. The most serious problems we face today, from nuclear proliferation to climate change, can't be solved alone. And, economically, our futures are deeply intertwined and will remain so."

Kerry warns that "the tendency to demonize China, to consider it the next great threat, just isn't based in reality." He believes "there is incredible potential for cooperation, even as we have to deal with certain disagreements now."

Despite Kerry's upbeat assessment, security conflicts continue to create serious tensions between the United States and China.

In the East China Sea, China and Japan tangle almost daily over their legal claims to several uninhabited islands which Japan took from China in 1895 during the first Sino-Japanese War. Japan's continuing push for ever greater U.S. support could draw the United States into an armed skirmish with China for the first time since the Korean War -- even though the U.S. does not recognize Japanese sovereignty over the islands.

In Northeast Asia, North Korea's provocative nuclear and missile tests heighten the risk of a new conflict on the Korean peninsula which could potentially lead to a confrontation between U.S. and Chinese forces.

In the Taiwan Strait, the dispute over Taiwan's political status remains fundamentally unresolved and could once again give rise to sharply increased tensions, despite the courageous efforts of Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou to seek greater stability through cross-Strait economic cooperation.

In the United States, China is increasingly seen as a leading source of cyberattacks against businesses, sensitive industrial infrastructure and government agencies. While defensive measures are being planned and implemented to effectively block the great majority of attacks from foreign countries, in the view of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, cyberattacks will continue to be a major issue in U.S.-China relations.

The best way to overcome the "China threat" and advance U.S. interests in East Asia is by achieving a stable peace with China through the diplomatic resolution of outstanding economic and security conflicts between the two countries.

By successfully negotiating a bilateral U.S.-China free trade agreement and including China in the regional free trade area of the Asia Pacific known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the U.S. would unleash unprecedented levels of international trade and investment. These agreements will tear down trade barriers to American goods and services, achieve far greater transparency in China's regulatory practices, and enable the United States to benefit from the economic dynamism of Asia - the new "engine" for global growth.

Improving relations between Washington and Beijing would also strengthen the advocates of human rights and democracy within China.

Right now, increased American military pressure on China aids the Chinese Communist Party. All too often, China's security forces have used the "U.S. threat" to justify draconian measures at home that preserve "internal stability." As former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky has explained, the "most dependable weapon" available to an authoritarian regime is an external security threat that can unify the people and justify domestic political repression.

Better relations with China would support wide-reaching political reform and liberalization. They would undercut the repressive internal forces that legitimize one-party authoritarian rule as a means of protecting the country against foreign military threats, particularly from the United States.

In the field of national security, through an ongoing process of mutual threat reduction, the United States can ensure that China is a future partner and not a danger to the interests of America and its allies. The greatest benefit is that the U.S. would avoid a military conflict for the foreseeable future with a country it now considers a major potential adversary.

Other critical security benefits to the United States and its allies include:

• Significantly reducing China's current and potential military threat to Taiwan, thus securing Taiwan's democracy;

• Utilizing China's considerable influence with North Korea to curb Pyongyang's nuclear weapon and missile development programs;

• Increasing security cooperation with China on both regional and global issues, allowing the United States to leverage Chinese capabilities for meeting common transnational threats such as climate change, energy insecurity, pandemic disease, cyberterrorism and nuclear proliferation;

• Curtailing cyberattacks by the Chinese military on U.S.-based targets as well as enforcing stringent measures against private individuals and groups in China that engage in cyber-hacking;

• Having China submit its maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas to an independent international judicial body to prevent festering conflicts over uninhabited islands and energy resources from escalating to armed conflict; and

• Reducing the scope, scale, and tempo of China's military modernization programs by discrediting the rationale for conducting a focused anti-U.S. buildup, especially since the country has so many other pressing material needs.

In his second term, President Obama should seize the opportunity created by the emergence of China's new leadership to stabilize U.S.-China relations -- by pursuing a diplomatic strategy that minimizes conflict, achieves greater mutually beneficial Sino-American cooperation, and significantly expands trade and investment between the two countries.

This approach would enable the United States to maintain an effective military presence in the Asia Pacific in coming years, despite defense budget cuts, while also rebalancing economic and political resources to the region to ensure stability and mutual prosperity.

Donald Gross is senior associate at the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a former State Department official, and author of
The China Fallacy: How the U.S. Can Benefit from China's Rise and Avoid Another Cold War (Bloomsbury, 2013).