It is often said that the written Chinese word for crisis is composed of the symbols for danger and opportunity. Those themes were on prominent display this morning when Jon Huntsman, the former U.S. ambassador to that country, spoke at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Huntsman, a Republican former governor of Utah who served in the Obama administration but then sought the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, covered a wide array of topics including the state of domestic politics. But when he talked about our relations with China in the coming years and decades, he saw both opportunity and danger.
He noted that the fifth generation of leadership since the country became communist is set to take the reins of power on November 8. "There will be an opening for Xi Jinping," who is currently vice president of the country and is widely expected to become its next leader. "The way the cycles of the relationship work, he'll have an opening to engage in reform probably between mid-2013 and 2016, 2017," Huntsman added. "The question will be: Is the United States ready to engage? Do we have a strategic agenda that we've refined and we're ready to put on the table vis-à-vis China that speaks to market openings, that speaks to expanding trade, that speaks to military relations."
That's all well and good. Of course both President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are engaged in a rhetorical competition to see who can take a tougher line regarding China, particularly on trade (all done with an eye toward winning Ohio).
But, he noted, while there's always a great deal of talk during a presidential campaign about what candidates will "do to China," that talk inevitably shifts post-November to what they will "do with China."
In the longer run, Huntsman warned there is a real danger of a conflict between the United States and China in the coming decades. He warned of what he called the "Peloponnesian complex," referring to the Peloponnesian wars between Athens and Sparta during the fifth century B.C. in response to the rise of Athens. Since 1500 AD, Huntsman said, there have been 15 major global conflicts and 11 of them have stemmed from a rising power bumping up against the existing power in the world. In the coming decades, he said, "You'll have a rising power [in China], it's just inevitable…and we'll bump up against them. ... And we're going to have to make sure that history doesn't repeat itself going all the way back toward Athens and Sparta where there was a 25 or 30 year conflict that wiped out both civilizations." He said that that will require "some very diligent and sensitive management" and that "we're going to have to realize that the trends toward more conflict and more tension when you have a rising power bumping up against an existing power can be very real. And we have to look carefully at what history suggested" the powers do "in those circumstances."