America and China: Partners or Rivals?

History tells us rivals often make the most productive partners. In charting the course for U.S.-China relations today and in the future, the Cold War provides a useful guide.
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As Hu descends from the Heavens, the Right has found a new adversary to make American hearts race strong and true. China for its part is acting like a great power teen, testing limits and ready, at least rhetorically, to act out.

The big question raised by the Right, daggers barely hidden, is: Will China in future be a partner or a rival? And they for sure know the answer: They want the Soviets back!

But what does history tell us about such moments of truth? What about America's former rival-partner relationships? What about the Soviets? What was really going on between Us and Them -- for almost 50 years?The record tells us things that the Right cannot see and will forever deny. But we must see, or we will surely get sucked into their narrative: Where America can only truly exist in Super-Hero incarnation; when, like Watchmen, it faces resident evil.

But history tells us something different. History says, partners, rivals: Why not both?

History tells us rivals often make the most productive partners. Here's why the Cold War is such a good guide here.

First: It's just you and me, Baby. If the rivals happen to be the two biggest states, the two baddest societies, and the two runaway-train enterprises in the system, then everyone else has to scramble to choose sides -- and become sidekicks. A big positive for the partners-rivals. Just look at the early Cold War: Great powers like Britain and France and China reduced to supporting actors.

How do they become supporting actors? Simple: They are outmatched by the primary reality set up by the partner-rivals. The partner-rivals, you see, are not equal. One is clearly the senior, and one the junior. This apparent status differential is important, because it establishes a condition of competition without argument. The surface vitality of there-could-be-conflict forces all others to deal with this, and presto! It becomes the predominant new system dynamic. How well this worked for both Americans and Soviets!

Not only do former powers have to choose sides and willingly subordinate themselves (de Gaulle's obdurate choice for France, and its ultimate failure, proving the rule!). Both senior and junior partner-rivals benefit as the other works to firm up their respective gaggles of clients, err, allies.

The junior partner-rival might also enjoy being relieved of certain senior responsibilities in exchange for slightly lesser status. Fewer upfront investment, fewer risks: Let the big guy carry the water while we get equal effect with probing low-cost initiatives, like fomenting insurgencies. The senior partner enjoys the status of, well, being senior. Worth the cost (which by the way we can afford).

Here is how rivalry becomes so productive to the two partner-rivals: It lays down, gives authority to, and absolutely reifies in the world's mind's eye the essential order of things. This shortly becomes a New Order of the Ages. Who really questioned the Cold War? Answer: The marginalized and the foolish and the powerless. Everyone else kowtowed (except of course de Gaulle!).

A final bonus: Both can instantly gang up to throttle 3rd Party upstarts, those would-be equals. But here is where a good thing can begin to go wrong, like Nixon going to China, instead of Moscow. Keeping China under Soviet thumb was essential to keeping our co-dependent Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf relationship going. We took our eye off the ball. We really blew it.

So now we have China as our prospective partner-rival of opportunity. Let's keep our head clear on this one. Let's try not to blow the big one again.

So let's review the bidding of what it takes to recreate the Cold War, the most productive partner-rival relationship of all time (or at least since Roman-Sassanian cohabitation in Late Antiquity!).

There need to be two clear top dogs. US and China: Check. But with a caution. EU and India and maybe even Russia and Brazil need to be kept in check too. A no-brainer. Just ratchet up partner-rival defense spending. Europe will not compete, Brazil will make a small show, while India and Russia will try and fail. The gun is the best talisman of world status.

Both partner-rivals must be "satisfied" powers. I hate ascribing states of the human mind to nation-states, but here it actually fits. The US -- as in the Cold War -- is the perfect senior partner-rival while China could be an even better junior partner-rival than the USSR. Its Commie-Confusionism (sic!) eschews the head-to-head but relishes the competition with a Sun Tzu wink. We are strategically well met.

Both must be acutely aware that the stability of a Big Two partner-rival world requires -- requires -- a well-rehearsed and convincingly sincere rivalry. The jockeying for advantage must keep the world's conviction that this is truly serious stuff: It must at all costs keep the tension alive ...

Or everything gained might be lost.The Cold War should have taught us that the greatest bonus of "strategic competition" is that its reality transforms actual strategic objectives in the arena of mere bragging rights. There is no real competition. This is no high stakes game: Winner-takes-all. That would equal defeat for both partner-rivals. The real stakes are keeping the grand deception alive, keeping the partnership dimension real and true for the rivals' own societies and indeed the whole of humankind.

So here are the words of warning. Partner-rival condominiums fall apart when:

  • A persistent 3rd Party emerges (look in the index under Mao)
  • One of the partner-rivals declines big-time or falls apart (the citation for Yeltsin)
  • A true alternative coalition-vision rises to challenge (fat chance, try the footnotes for de Gaulle and the Bandung Conference)
  • The worst: Irrevocable and existential differences emerge. The partner-rivals leave their Golden Age and come to blows.

This is where the sure-thing bid for a US-PRC partner-rival could fall apart. Consider this scenario:

2020: Going great guns, thank you very much. There is a carrier-competition, bringing procurement bounty and blissful memories to a US Navy suddenly restored and beloved by the nation: While Zheng He pride swells the collective Chinese bosom as their new armadas fleet to Africa!

2030: Undone, undone! The slow-fuse intersection of energy need and peak oil finally hits a humanity lulled for two decades by the depressed demand of The Endless Recession (Hey it happened to Japan, why not us and Europe?). Peak oil is 20 years in the past, while the new price peaks under surging China-India demand. Much is about to crash. China sends out Zheng He to save the day! The USN mobilizes.

2040: Undone, undone! Climate change hits China harder than North America. China becomes the first rogue climate state. Desertification is ruining the North, while a water crisis of subsiding Himalayan glaciers, plus the Monsoon shift, is literally ravaging the heart of Han. Something has to be done -- now. So the never-discarded artillery parks are put to salvational use: Not in war but rather to hold back the heat. Billions of pellets in the stratosphere: Cooling, cooling -- but also bringing unpredictable and massive distortions to global climate. A provocation in this future, for us, might be worse than war.

China is desperate and under siege. It is willing to risk the partner-rival relationship with America. The US for its part needs those precious liquid fuels too, and China's torquing of global climate rings the dread tocsin in the American bell tower.

Da Capo al fine: We are into another historical rerun.

When partner-rival relationships end, the system itself (or in our case today, the whole world) can suffer severely. Thing might seem different at first, like the gushing pronouncements that attended the end of the Cold War, once known as

The End of History (sic!)

But the Apocalypse did not dock; instead the ship that came in was another balance-of-power world, more instability, a seriously declining hegemon shorn of ideas, and looming earth-shocks for which we are all determined to assign rhetoric in place of action.

So a US-China partner-rival might give the world coherence again -- and who knows? If we really understand the complex sublimities and nuances of this relationship, we might together help the world -- and ourselves -- skirt the foundering rocks of the negative outcome, the bad scenario, above.

Think about it, live with it, and more important, expect it: Partner-rivals.

This is our Sino-American future.

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