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Are China and America on a collision course?

Probably not. The greater threat is that President Obama and President Hu, preoccupied with domestic matters, will fail to muster the political will needed to find collective solutions to the international problems their nations share in common.

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“Korea War games sign of growing tensions,” warns a recent report by the BBC News. Dozens of similar international headlines warn of intensifying Sino-American strategic rivalry and even cold war.

Yet this prognosis is way off the mark. It confuses tactical maneuvering for grand strategy. Today’s global economy is pushing both of these great powers toward strategies of retrenchment and buck-passing, not expansionism and conflict.

The US and China do have important strategic differences in Northeast Asia and elsewhere, and testy encounters like the recent one over US-South Korean naval exercises can be expected. However, today neither President Obama nor Chinese President Hu Jintao can afford domestically to entertain grand strategic designs and geopolitical ambitions, let alone engage in a costly cold war-style conflict.

Obama is scaling back commitments

In fact, both leaders are trimming their foreign policy sails as they concentrate on priorities at home.

The need for retrenchment is the real reason that President Obama has revived America’s commitment to international institutions and multilateralism, and why he has been pressuring Europe, China, and other nations to shoulder a greater share of the international security burden (for example, in containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions). Similar cost-saving considerations also explain Obama’s efforts to “reset” relations with Russia and to curb the growth of the Pentagon’s budget.

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