Right to the point (Aug.14 2008)

America’s future with China: competition, confrontation, engagement

Aug. 14, 2008
By Mike Benevento

Starting with the spectacular opening ceremonies, the Beijing Olympics have been very exciting to watch. Already, China and the United States are shaping up as top rivals during the games.

In a way, the Olympics serve as a microcosm of U.S.-Chinese relations. Many Americans do not realize that China is a growing threat and in the near future will increasingly affect America’s prosperity and national security. Within the next 15 years, there is a good chance that communist China will become America’s biggest competitor and arch nemesis throughout the world.

During the Cold War, the world was bipolar. Many countries aligned themselves with the U.S.-led West or were under Russia’s influence. There were unaligned nations, but for the most part these countries wielded very little influence in the world. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the mid-1990s there were three economic powers in the world: the European Union, Japan and the United States. However, even back then, the ever-growing economic and military wild card on the world’s political scene was the People’s Republic of China.

Mainland China has become a nation of consumers. Just like Americans, the Chinese people are buying and selling goods and services — and wanting a better life for their family and children. However, as raw materials (especially oil) and markets have started to dwindle, the two nations find themselves increasingly vying for the same limited resources, driving up prices and potentially causing conflicts.

Today, economic competition with China is increasing. These days, it seems like most consumer goods Americans buy have “Made in China” written on their label. Just like the United States, China exports goods throughout the world. Unlike the past, however, it no longer sells only cheap products. Much of what the Chinese produce is high quality, sophisticated goods, like electronic equipment and automobiles. When speaking about Chinese automakers, Bill Ford, chairman of the board of Ford Motor Company, told Business Week, “I think they’re very credible competitors. The biggest mistake we could ever make is to disregard them. We’re watching them very closely.”

As China moves from a developing to a developed country, it has also become a nation of polluters. The World Bank estimates that 750,000 Chinese die annually from the effects of pollution. As Tom Brokaw pointed out last Sunday, China is building one coal-powered plant a week and uses about one-third of the world’s coal. As its population and economy continues to grow, China expects to add 20,000 cars daily. This energy use and pollution negatively impacts the environment and adds to global warming.

China has discretely built the world’s second largest military as America focuses attention on the War on Terror, the Axis of Evil and in the Middle East. It continues to be the world’s biggest exporter of military weapons, many of which have found their way onto the battlefields of Iraq and Sudan. Unlike the arms sold in the 1960s and 1970s (which were cheap copies of Russian equipment), the weapons systems the Chinese sell nowadays are top of the line, making them potentially even more deadly to Americans.

Most importantly, the Chinese nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals are very impressive. Besides having the ability to launch nukes against the American homeland, there is concern for China’s proliferation of nuclear technology and weapons to nations hostile to America. In 2005, the Defense Department predicted a three-fold increase in China’s defense spending over the next 20 years. While the U.S. military shrinks in size, China’s continues to modernize and grow. The fear is that the Chinese will use this military might to bully America and its allies in the future.

Since the Nixon Administration, engagement has been America’s main foreign policy tool with China. The hope is that close interaction between the two countries will influence China along a peaceful path. By economically interconnecting with China, the United States has helped nudge the country into being more open and respecting of human rights. As U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson noted days ago, “Only through continued engagement with China can we help them solve the issues.” By engaging the Chinese, the United States has helped its leadership start to reform and give more freedom to its people.

As the world’s resources become more strained, the future of U.S.-Chinese relations will be one of increased economic competition and possible military confrontation. America needs to continue engaging the Chinese in order to help usher them along a peaceful path. Otherwise, with its expanding military and economy, China will pose many challenges for generations to come.

Michael Benevento is a former Air Force fighter jet weapon systems officer. He has a bachelor’s degree in Military History and a master’s in International Relations. Mike resides in Williston with his wife Kristine and their two sons, Matthew and Calvin.