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The China Puzzle, Part I: The Next Nixon

Mar 13, 2012 Written by  Gary Barnabo, Guest Contributor

China_America_PuzzleFebruary 2012 marked the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China. In hindsight, Nixon’s decision to open relations with China is seen as one of the major diplomatic achievements of the latter half of the 20th century. Forty years later, a generation of Millennials is learning Mandarin, working and studying in China, and thinking deeply about the prospect of American decline in an Asian century. To mark this milestone, members of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP), each with unique perspectives on China and East Asian affairs, gave their views on China's role in today's world. This is the first in a four-part series.

Forty years ago, President Richard Nixon went to China despite the doubts of advisors and a general public too blinded the cold war to recognize the significance an opening to China’s closed society. That decision, now remembered as a geopolitical masterstroke, changed how a generation of Americans thought about China.

But the current generation of Americans has lost its ability to think creatively and broadly about China’s role in the world and its relationship with the United States. We are obsessed with managing its rise and preventing it from taking jobs; we bang on about its currency, and fret incessantly about whatever latest missile it is apparently ready to lob at our aircraft carriers. These issues matter, but a clear assessment of risks and opportunities is long overdue.

America needs a new Nixon, and the current generation of young foreign policy leaders is well positioned to produce him (or her). Today’s rising leaders – Millennials in their 20s and early 30s – have never known a time when China has not been a core player in global affairs. Young people actively reject the "us-versus-them" mentality of the Cold War — even though much of its rhetoric continues to litter the foreign policy discourse — so have less inclination to reduce today’s complex international system to “America versus China.” This generation’s formative experience of a rising China will produce the next masterstroke. Absent their leadership, Nixon’s legacy of stable U.S.-China relations could be squandered.

Three guiding principles will help the next generation of foreign policy leaders shift the contours of how America thinks and talks about China.

The first is recognition that China seeks prestige above other geopolitical goals, whether in pursuit of aircraft carriers, influence in the UN, or the accumulation of gold medals in the 2008 Olympics.

The second is an approach to policy that forces China into the game, rather than trying to keep it out. This generation tends to be more favorably inclined toward engagement, and we are less likely to react with fear or suspicion when discovering that our interests are not perfectly concomitant with other countries. As young people inherit a battered American economy and a profusion of military commitments, the American tendency to micro-manage every potential crisis will fade. The next generation of foreign policy professionals will be happy to hand off problems to Beijing, ensuring that they shoulder new responsibility in constructing a more stable, secure world.

Finally, with the experience of September 11th seared into the nation’s collective memory, our generation is far more attuned to the risks posed by weak and fragile states. Our vision for China acknowledges that a strong China is better than a weak China. Beijing faces long-term trends that should send a shiver down the spine of strategists. China will get old before it gets rich. The pressures of urbanization and resource demand threaten to stretch the capacity of the government to provide for its citizens. And it exists in a geopolitical tinderbox where its massive size and relative power has not historically translated into ensuring regional stability. The threat from a strong China active in the world is infinitesimally less than a weak or fragmenting China that is unable to prevent chaos in East Asia.

We need the next China masterstroke. Nixon jumpstarted the engine. That was the easy part. The next generation of foreign policy leaders will have to steer U.S.-China relations along a no less uncertain road, but guided by a radically different set of political instincts.

Gary Barnabo is the Senior Vice President of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP), a global nonprofit that fosters the next generation of foreign policy leaders.

Tagged under China    U.S.    America    Millennials    Cold War    economy    Olympics   
Last modified on Tuesday, 13 March 2012 05:18

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