It is indisputable that China's international influence has been on the rise in recent years.
This trend has caused some commentators to draw comparisons between this country and the old Soviet Union. They hypothesize China's rise, like that of the former Soviet Union, will pose a challenge to US hegemony, thus leading to containment from the superpower and a subsequent hegemony-struggling situation between the two countries.
Such fear seems to have been bolstered by swarms of frictions between the two countries in the post-Cold War era.
Sino-US relations suffered setbacks following the end of the Cold War. A string of events, such as bilateral squabbles on the issue of "most favored nation" treatment, Taiwan leader Lee Teng-hui's visit to the United States, the US-led NATO bombing of China's embassy in Yugoslavia, and the clash of a Chinese fighter jet and a US spy plane over the South China Sea, fully exposed the two countries' fundamental conflicts on ideology, national interests and international perspective.
The view runs widespread that Beijing and Washington have again begun to say "no" to each other, thus paving the road to an unavoidable Cold War-style confrontation.
Some in the United States assert China will pose or does pose the largest threat to US security. They believe the United States should remain highly vigilant against the rise of China.
Some Americans also hold that the ensuing improvement of Sino-US relations in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 will not reverse the two countries' final confrontation in the Asia-Pacific region or on the Taiwan question.
However, a review of the path China has adopted since the end of the Cold War indicates such worries and conclusions are groundless.
First, despite its increasing national strength, China still has a larger strength gap with the United States than that which existed between the former Soviet Union and the US during the Cold War.
China's gross domestic product (GDP) is currently about US$1.5 trillion -- only one-seventh that of the United States -- and its per capita GDP has just exceeded US$1000, less than one-thirtieth that of the United States. In terms of defense spending, strategic missile arsenals, and navy and air forces, the gap between the two is even wider.
The former Soviet Union had about one-third of the US economic capacity and almost a parallel capability with the US in land forces and strategic nuclear missiles.
Second, China has a sober perception of its national conditions, forces and development goals. The country has positioned itself in the early stage of socialism. Its ambitious program to build a well-off society for its people by 2020 has not changed its current relatively lower development level and unbalanced development structure. Its ongoing national defense modernization drive and pursuit of a cocoordinated economic development model do not mean it will carry out arms races with any country.
China's objective estimate of its national forces and its pragmatic development goals are in sharp contrast with the former Soviet Union, which announced it had entered the stage of a developed socialist nation and held a strong desire to catch up with or surpass the United States militarily and economically.
Third, China has held a cool-headed attitude towards the trends of economic globalization and international forces comparison. Different from the former Soviet Union, which always overstated socialist and capitalist differences and almost completely negated all capitalist elements, including positive ones, China has actively integrated itself into the current of globalization since its adoption of the reform and opening-up initiative. It has always shown a strong enthusiasm to learn useful lessons from market-oriented countries and advocated a win-win international cooperation and competition.
Fourth, China's contemporary diplomacy is fundamentally different from that of the former Soviet Union.
Compared to Soviet diplomacy, which was mainly aimed at overthrowing the West-led international order, China's fundamental diplomatic purpose is to create a favorable international environment for its self-development, maintain territorial integrity and promote the final national reunification. To this end, a relaxed international situation is in its interest. It cherishes its hard-won peace and development opportunities and has no intention of spearheading opposition to any major power.
Its opposition to US unilateral actions, especially those harming China's national interests, does not indicate it has pursued an ideologically demarcated diplomacy and worked for group politics and sphere of influences. China's lack of intention to set up military blocs targeted against other nations has greatly improved its relations with neighboring countries over the past two decades.
Fifth, China has attached utmost importance to conducting strategic dialogues and mutual communications with the United States and other major powers.
The Soviet and American miscalculation of each other's strategic intentions served as a fundamental reason for the start and escalation of the Cold War. In the early 1990s, the Chinese leadership put forward to the US the principle to "increase trust, reduce trouble, develop cooperation and seek no confrontation" in handling bilateral ties. Such a principle has helped pull Sino-US relations out of several crises in the post-Cold War era.
To avoid backsliding into Cold War-like confrontation, China and the United States should make joint efforts.
Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has not categorically identified any major power as its main security threat. The September 11 event finally hammered home to the United States that the combination of extremists and advanced technologies remain its most dangerous enemy. The prolonged US predicament in postwar Iraq dictates that Washington will focus mainly on the Middle East for a long period, which makes it difficult for the US to successfully organize an anti-China circle in the international community.
To avoid confrontation, a multilateral security mechanism involving the two countries should also be established in the Asia-Pacific region. In recent years, China has on many occasions welcomed an active US role in Asia-Pacific affairs and the two countries have strengthened cooperation on such issues as the Korean nuclear issue, non-proliferation and anti-terrorism.
But the accelerated US missile defense system and its deepened military alliances in the Asia-Pacific region have given rise to concerns in China. At the same time, China's military build-up, although for peaceful purposes, has also worried the United States.
Thus it is necessary for the two countries to promote bilateral military exchanges and strategic dialogues while advancing a multilateral security mechanism to enhance mutual understanding and trust.
To prevent any abrupt incident from affecting bilateral ties, the two countries should aim their strategic dialogues at crisis prevention and management.
Most important, the two countries should deepen the reached consensus on the Taiwan question, namely the one-China principle and opposing Taiwan independence. They should carry out candid and in-depth dialogues on this issue to prevent some forces from pushing Sino-US relations deep into the mire of confrontation.
It is true that China's national forces have rapidly improved and its international status has been on the increase. But, in some respects, this has not weakened but consolidated America's status as the world's lone superpower.
The concurrent beef-up of both countries' strength indicates that China and the United States can completely avoid being pushed by any international factor to the hegemony-struggling chariot if the former carries on the proven correct development path and the latter's decision-makers do not make fatal strategic mistakes.
(China Daily June 14, 2004)