International ties

Sino-US relations at critical juncture in history

By Han Dongping (
Updated: 2011-01-24 15:04
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The United State of America, the only remaining superpower, has declined significantly due to the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as one of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression. It is faced with more challenges in Afghanistan and other parts of the world. Its national debt has reached up to fourteen trillion dollars, equaling the size of its GDP. The US unemployment rate remains high. Many state and local governments are faced with budget shortfalls, and have been forced to cut their spending on education and other benefits to citizens.

Many of my colleagues, as well as my students and their parents, are worried about the future of their country and the future of their children with the looming national debt.

China, on the other hand, has become more and more robust - both comprehensively and economically - during the last few decades. Despite the doomsayers' continuous predictions about China's potential downfall, China has stood out as a rare success story in the world.

It has surpassed Japan to become the second-largest economy in the world, and it has surpassed Germany to become the world’s biggest exporter of goods. Last year, China also acquired the honor of producing the world’s fastest computer. More recently, China has changed its typical practices by publicly acknowledging that it has developed a new stealth fighter jet which could supposedly threaten US carriers.

More importantly, Chinese students in Shanghai performed best on an exam administered by the OECD. Education has always been an important indicator about the future direction of a nation, because it is about the training of future generations.

In each of my classes, my American students asked me eagerly if and when China would be able to surpass the United States. I told them that if the current trends continue, and if we can maintain relative world peace, and if China can maintain its internal stability, then China holds significant potential to surpass the United States (economically speaking).

As the most populous nation in the world, China has the manpower. Chinese society is very well-organized. Even though China's social organization is no longer as effective as in its old days, it still enjoys tremendous advantage over that of the United States.

The lack of grassroots coherence in the United States was cruelly revealed when Katrina hit New Orleans. There were no organization and no order when disaster fell on that city. The US Army and National Guards had to move in - with full battleground gear - to maintain order.

China also has the longest recorded history in the world, with a twenty-two-hundred-year tradition of being a unitary state. This tradition and culture of a unitary state (da yi tong—big, united and oneness) is often misunderstood by non-Chinese people. However, it is exceptionally effective and efficient.

China led the world in science and technology until 1500. The Chinese economy was the world’s biggest economy until 1850. China maintained a monopoly on silk, porcelain production, and tea for a very long period of history. In today’s world of innovation and invention, Chinese people are doing well in catching up with the more developed western world.

I went to Europe several times during recent years to attend the world-famous Salzburg seminars with the world’s most prominent bankers, scholars, and business leaders. At the seminar, many western business leaders admitted that they could not keep up with their Chinese competitors.

Every time the Europeans came out with a new product, within several months there will be several Chinese products which are better made and which cost much less. Some major multinational corporations have realized that the only sensible way to conduct business in China now is to have joint research-and-development programs with Chinese partners.

At this point, there is still a great deal of copying and imitating in China's manufacturing. As Chinese engineers become more and more sophisticated, however, China will soon regain its position of leadership in the fields of science and technology.

It is natural for the American people to feel surprised by China’s advances. The US has enjoyed being “number one” in the world for a long time, and the country has reaped many benefits from that position. If they were to lose that position, they would not be able to continue living the lifestyle to which they are accustomed. In this environment, it is not unlikely that some US leaders would advocate using military power to start a war in order to prevent China from catching up.

That was why I, like many other peace-loving people in the world, became very worried when the US, South Korea, and Japan held frequent navy exercises close to China’s sovereign waters. At one point, three US carriers gathered outside Chinese territory waters. I consider it a great diplomatic victory for China as it has successfully defused the military tension in its vicinity.

There are multiple ways of looking at our world. The Sino-US relationship does not have to be a zero-sum game in which one party’s gain necessarily becomes the other party’s loss. If our leaders are smart, we can turn the Sino-US relationship into a positive-sum game.

As China advances and develops, China will be able to buy more and more products from the US, which will provide more job opportunities for American workers. As China and the US develop greater trust and understanding, the US can cut its military spending and withdraw from some of its overseas bases. The money saved by reducing military spending will then enable the US to cut its budget deficit, improve services for its citizens, and pay back its creditors (including China). The world will become a more peaceful place, with cooperation between China and the US.

Based on the joint Sino-US Communiqué, President Hu's visit to the US has produced many tangible results. Despite some differences, the two countries have agreed to cooperate on many fronts. As the two most important nations in today’s world, China and the US will be able to make our world a much better place - if they choose to cooperate. If, on the other hand, they choose a path of confrontation, not only the Chinese and American people would suffer - the whole world would be affected negatively.