[OVERSEAS VIEW]Expect meekness as superpowers meetOn April 20, China's president Hu Jintao will travel to Washington to meet with President George W. Bush. It will be an encounter between the two giants of the 21st century ― between the “last remaining superpower” and the future superpower that is already eclipsing Russia, the old no. 2.
This meeting between Mr. Bush and Mr. Hu will be their sixth in four years, and this astounding frequency spells out an interesting message. Let's go back to the second half of the 20th century, when the Soviet Union was America’s No. 1 rival. At no time during the Cold War had the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union met so often in such a short time. And when they did meet ― from Eisenhower to Reagan, from Khrushchev to Brezhnev ― the summits usually ended in disappointment, if not angry recrimination.
But when Mr. Bush and Mr. Hu face the cameras in Washington this time, it will be all smiles. Why? Because the two of them are such good friends? They are not. Because their countries have no conflicts? There are lots of clashes between them. So why will they be smiling?
Let's first state the obvious: America and China are rivals, and will remain rivals for the rest of this century. Already today, both countries are eyeing each other warily. China is rearming at a breathtaking rate, with its defense budget growing at 10 percent per year. China keeps threatening America’s protege, Taiwan, with war if it declares independence. China is staking out territorial claims in the waters around Japan, a close American ally. Beijing is quick to feel insulted, and when it does, it sends angry demonstrators to throw rocks at the American embassy.
Ever so subtly, Beijing is signaling the Americans that East Asia is China’s sphere of influence.
China’s claim to superpower status will grow stronger as its economy expands at breakneck speed: 10 percent per year since the beginning of this millennium. Now let’s look at American policies which are quietly building a ring of containment around China.
Washington has tightened its military alliance with Japan. It is trying to recruit India, the other rising giant, into a coalition against China. Washington is expanding its economic presence in Vietnam, its old enemy, while strengthening ties to its old allies, Australia and New Zealand. And the U.S. is keeping its Seventh Fleet ready to protect Taiwan against an assault from the mainland.
So if you look at the world from Beijing, you see an encirclement masterminded by the United States. In past centuries, the encounter between a rising, revisionist power and the established top dog was always a recipe for war.
The rise of Germany in the late 19th century ended in World War I, and the rise of Japan led first to war against Russia and China, and then, with the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, to a war against the United States.
Yet history need not repeat itself. The differences between yesterday and today are as obvious as the rivalries between the U.S. and China.
China cannot risk its $200 billion trade surplus with the United States. Likewise, Washington must take care not to provoke Beijing into dumping hundreds of billions of dollars on the market, which will destroy the value of the American currency. These hard economic facts act like a straitjacket on their strategic competition.
Plus, they need each other for strategic reasons. America needs China to constrain Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, and China needs the United States. as a counterweight to a resurgent Russia. Moreover, in contrast to the first half of the 20th century, today’s duelists are both armed with nuclear weapons, and so they know exactly what the price of miscalculation will be: mutual devastation. When Japan launched its attack on Pearl Harbor, it could not even imagine in its worst nightmare that Hiroshima and Nagasaki awaited.
So there is a very good chance that the giants of the 21st century, though driven by fear and ambition, will not go down the bloody road of the 20th century. They will vie for influence, while trying to constrain and to contain each other. But they know they must cooperate and that they cannot afford to let their competition escalate into a violent confrontation.
This is why Mr. Hu and Mr. Bush have met each other so often in so short a time. They know what the stakes are ― and that they cannot afford to place a wrong bet. So the meeting in Washington on April 20 will be all smiles and no growls. Not at all like the legendary encounter between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in 1961, when Mr. Khrushchev thought he could intimidate the young American president and, on his return to Moscow, decided to install Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. The result of this gambit was the Cuban missile crisis and almost World War III.
Today’s leaders seem to be a lot smarter than their predecessors in the last century. That is why the chances are good that the drama of the 21st century will not be a remake of the 20th, the deadliest century of them all.
* The writer, the publisher-editor of Die Zeit in Germany, is currently teaching U.S. foreign policy at Stanford University, where he is also a fellow at the Hoover Institution.
by Josef Joffe