When President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao meet in Washington on Jan. 19, they should recognize that generally when a new big power rises, war ensues.
The 20th century narrates a bloody tale of the rise and fall of empires. Luckily, 20th-century-type wars are unlikely to occur in the 21st. But there are many other types of conflict that could be just as devastating.
There was a time when it was assumed that things could be different. In 2005, the leading Chinese intellectual and reformer Zheng Bijian coined the term "China's peaceful rise." There was an underlying assumption among international policymakers and thought leaders that globalization had transformed the paradigm: Geopolitics is zero-sum, the new age of global economic interdependence is win-win. Unfortunately, that has never been true.
As the financial crisis of 2008-09 has shaken the confident foundations of a new global economic order and caused considerable havoc, relations between China and the United States have deteriorated simultaneously. On virtually any issue one can think of - trade, finance, investment, intellectual property rights, security, morality, human rights - we are seeing what has been termed "escalating reciprocal demonization." This combination of economic havoc - especially stubbornly high unemployment - and geopolitical tensions between the rising and the established powers is cause for alarm.
There are mechanisms in place for confidence building - notably the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. However, while there can be no doubt that Winston Churchill's dictum that "jaw-jaw is better than war-war," there was a lot of jaw-jaw in the past that did not prevent war-war from breaking out.
While warlike conflict between the United States and China (in whatever form) is not inevitable, it is better to assume that it may well be possible rather than bask in the complacent illusion that it is impossible. This perspective also focuses the mind on how to prevent the conflict. The most secure means to prevent U.S.-China conflict is to strengthen and upgrade the international rule of law and multilateral institutions. International criminal tribunals, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the U.N.'s human rights and labor organizations are all possibilities for reinforcement.
That, however, is not the current situation: Along with the deteriorating global economy and the escalating Sino-American tension, the international rule of law and the multilateral institutions have either been outright flouted - as was the case when America invaded Iraq - or have been wallowing in paralysis - as is the case with the WTO Doha Round and with the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Group of 20 summits have somewhat attenuated matters, though they still remain mainly talking shops that do not have powers of enforcement.
The weakness of the international institutions and international law necessarily result in a growing number of areas that remain outside the boundaries of law. These, in turn, are leading to further deterioration in U.S.-China relations and are further escalating reciprocal demonization.
As Chinese President Hu is due to visit Washington, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates visited Beijing amid reports that China is constructing its first aircraft carrier and a stealth-fighter prototype. There are worrying signs of the outbreak of an arms race in the Pacific.
Likewise, China's recent move to cut export quotas on vital rare-earth minerals is also a cause for concern and may lead the United States to launch its second trade dispute against Chinese export restrictions.
We are not so naive to believe that strengthening the international rule of law and multilateral institutions is in any way a guarantee against conflict. Yet we do see that this is where lie the greatest chances for long-term peaceful relations between the United States and China. These institutions that, in spite of their many imperfections, have served the world well in the past 60 years were set up after World War II. It seems definitely worthwhile to try strengthening and enhancing them and the rule of law before the breakout of another global cataclysm. There also are, no doubt, reforms and adjustments that need to be made. The revision of International Money Fund quotas is a small yet positive step in the right direction. More reform and more adjustments are necessary.
Because the most probable and imminent escalation of conflict between the United States and China is in trade and the possible outbreak of protectionism, we are convinced that the first major step toward strengthening the global legal and institutional framework would be the successful conclusion of the WTO Doha Round. If Presidents Obama and Hu could commit to concluding, along with the other G-20 members, the Doha Round at the latest by November 2011 (when the round will reach its 10th anniversary) the world would be a more lawful, hence safer, place, and the prospect of a U.S.-China conflict would have diminished.
Jean-Pierre Lehmann is professor of international political economy at the International Institute for Management Development and the founding director of the Evian Group at IMD. He is co-editor of "Peace and Prosperity Through World Trade" (Cambridge University Press, 2010). Arthur Appleton is a partner in the international law firm Appleton Luft.
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