Tom Friedman has a pretty good column today on the future of Sino-American relations, in effect warning that unruly nationalism in China could spell trouble down the road. Money quotation:
The days when Nixon and Mao could manage this relationship in secret are long gone. There are a lot of unstable chemicals at work out here today, and so many more players with the power to inflame or calm U.S.-China relations.
A Sino-American Cold War is not inevitable, perhaps, and it is easy to think of reasons why the two largest economies (and over time, two most significant military powers) might manage to keep their competition within safe bounds. Optimists invoke the usual liberal antidotes to conflict: the growing economic ties between the two countries, China's "socialization" into existing institutions, and the possibility that China will one day become a democracy. Or one may hope that Beijing will realize that overly assertive behavior will quickly provoke balancing behavior by China's neighbors (moving them to align more closely with each other and with the United States), thereby leaving China isolated and worse off overall. And if the United States manages to extricate itself from its Iraqi and Afghan morasses and devotes more attention on Asia, then there might be even less chance of a Sino-American train wreck down the road.
But here's why I'm less optimistic. Assuming China continues to grow economically, it will also increase its military power and thus its capacity to threaten certain U.S. interests. Like any great power, it will tend to view its own "vital interests" more expansively as its power rises, and it will want to do what it can to ensure that others cannot threaten those interests. For example, a rising China that is increasingly dependent on overseas resources and markets will naturally want to make it harder for others to threaten these vital sea lines of communication. To be concerned by these things is not a sign of aggressive expansionism; it is just typical great power behavior. And given that U.S. leaders think they have "vital interest" in virtually every part of the globe, this sort of behavior ought to be easy for Americans to recognize.