Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping came to the United States last week, and that set alarm bells clanging. Among those who sorely miss the Cold War, China serves as an endless source of fear and loathing.
Mitt Romney responded in tones appropriate for a bitter foe. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, he accused President Barack Obama of "weakness" that "has only encouraged Chinese assertiveness" while serving to "embolden China's leaders at the expense of greater liberty."
As for our economic ties, he wrote, "A trade war with China is the last thing I want, but I cannot tolerate our current trade surrender."
Martial metaphors like that give the impression we are locked in a deadly struggle with Beijing. For that reason, it's no surprise that in January of last year, China ranked first in a Pew Center poll as the country representing the greatest danger to the United States. In the latest one, it finished second only to Iran.
The perception of Iran is understandable, given that our leaders seem bent on taking us to war there. But China? If we're going to have adversaries, China is the best kind to have.
For one thing, it's no match for us militarily. The United States spends between two and nine times as much on defense as China. We have 11 aircraft carriers; they have one -- which they bought, used, from Ukraine. We have nearly 3,700 modern combat aircraft to their 307.
"We don't view China as a direct threat," Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk, commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, said last year. "To look at China through the lens of an adversary would be counterproductive."
It's true that China has been upgrading its defense forces. But that's what you would expect of a country that has gotten much richer in the past few decades.
It's also what you would expect of a country surrounded by neighbors with which it has had military conflicts -- including Russia, Japan, India and Vietnam. Not to mention that it has 9,000 miles of coastline on the Pacific Ocean, which is effectively owned and operated by the U.S. Navy.
Like any normal regional power, China aspires to have some capacity to dictate to others rather than be dictated to. That ambition could bring it to blows with the United States over Taiwan or over free passage in the South China Sea.
Rising powers often collide with established powers, which means there is certainly potential for China to clash with the United States. But the two sides have proved able to peacefully manage their chief disagreement, Taiwan, decade after decade.
Human rights will be a source of tension as long as Beijing persecutes dissidents, but it's no cause for war. And the economic changes China has made are bound to lead, over time, to political liberalization.
China bears little resemblance to Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union in its approach to the world. The post-Mao government has shown no interest in grabbing territory from neighbors, enforcing obedience or promoting revolution. It has no dangerous ideology to spread. It has exhibited a consistent desire to focus on internal development.
It has done little to make trouble beyond its borders. China has repeatedly shown itself to be, writes Princeton scholar Aaron Friedberg, "a cautious power with limited aims."
What about the economic realm? In our daily lives, someone who sells us things and lends us money is to be valued, not feared. China is often accused of keeping its exchange rate low to benefit its export sector. But that's not exactly an act of naked aggression.
In fact, it's a favor to American consumers, who get goods at a lower price than they otherwise would. If shipping us freighters full of merchandise were a way to reduce us to submission, we'd have been taken over by Japan 20 years ago.
China's rapid growth has been a good thing, not a bad one. It has transformed a backward communist nation into a thriving, mostly capitalist one. It has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. It has brought China into the world economy and the World Trade Organization -- where, if we think it's using unfair trade practices, we can bring action to stop them.
As long as it remains an authoritarian state, China is not going to be our BFF. But it is not fated to be an enemy, unless we decide to make it one.
Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman.
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