U.S. Must Help Shape China's Next Decade

Senator Jim Webb (D-Va.) said on Meet the Press on June 26 that the United States is approaching a “Munich Moment” with China, referencing diplomatic failures in the 1930s to take early action to stop the rise of the Nazis. China’s apparent bullying of Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea earlier this year set the scene for Webb’s statement.

On July 11, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen made a speech at Renmin University in Beijing in which he said that China is “no longer a rising power. It has, in fact, arrived as a great power.”

Despite the underwhelming media attention given to these remarks, these statements (which do not appear to be coordinated) by two high-profile policymakers speak to a major challenge that the U.S. currently faces in how to enhance and maintain the U.S.-led international system in light of China's growing economic, military, and political power. Within this new global framework, the U.S. must seek a way that maximizes peace and prosperity. 

The timing of these comments is particularly significant, given that China is in the midst of a key domestic transition as it approaches the 18th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress in fall 2012, when it will choose the personnel and lay the policy groundwork for the party leadership for the next 10 years.

The past decade was momentous and challenging for the CCP. Party leadership steered the country through innumerable political and economic trials and tribulations. The trouble with this success is that it may legitimize and encourage status quo approaches to governance that harm China's long-term stability and international relationships, such as its approach to human rights, climate change, and support for regimes in North Korea, Iran, and Burma.

The current party leadership under Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao will have great influence over the future policies of the new Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang administration, set to take charge in 2012. The new leadership will guide China through an equally momentous 10-year period, one in which China will face more complicated issues in foreign policy given its elevated influence in global affairs.

Now is the time for the U.S. to start speaking publicly about China's rise and our relationship with China in a different tone. Webb’s comments, while controversial, draw attention to the need for action. Mullen’s rhetorical welcoming of China to the circle of great powers was a shrewd move. While offering China the praise and respect it craves and requires to please its domestic constituents, this recognition subtly indicates that the U.S. may no longer stand for China's refrain that as a developing nation with many domestic challenges, it cannot be a leading, responsible, and contributing member of the global community that makes sacrifices for international welfare.

It is a subtle message that China's behavior must change, and it could not be better timed. The U.S. must send signals to the top leadership in China right now that the more undesirable aspects of their overall successful governance over the past 10 years will not be tolerated so gracefully for the next decade.

Photo Credit: tomnono