The US-China relationship is vital to global stability. Good thing it isn't doomed.
Thousands of young Americans study and work in China, or participate in special study or travel programs. Several major US universities now have their own campuses in China with both American and Chinese faculty. Unlike the former Soviet Union, millions of Chinese regularly travel abroad as tourists and to work temporarily. Millions of young Chinese are in daily touch with the world through the Internet.
All this contrasts greatly with the societal self-isolation of the 19th- and 20th-century contestants for global power. Mutual isolation in those days intensified grievances, escalated hostility, and made it easier to demonize one another.
Nonetheless, we cannot entirely ignore the fact that the hopeful expectation in recent years of an amicable American-Chinese relationship has lately been tested by ever more antagonistic polemics, especially in the mass media of both sides. This has been fueled in part by speculation about America’s allegedly inevitable decline and about China’s relentless, rapid rise.
In the mass media, economically anxious American pessimists and nationalistically exuberant Chinese optimists have been prolific and outspoken in their simplistic view of the world and history.
Pessimism about America’ future tends to underestimate this country’s capacity for self-renewal. Exuberant optimists about China’s inevitable preeminence underestimate the gap that still separates China from America – whether in GDP per capita terms or in respective technological capabilities. Paradoxically, China’s truly admirable economic success is now intensifying the systemic need for complex social and political adjustments in how – and to what extent – a ruling bureaucracy that defines itself as communist can continue to direct a system of state capitalism with a rising middle class seeking more rights.