What U.S.-China Military Ties Mean for the World

The recent exchange of visits by the military chiefs of the U.S. and China — Admiral Mike Mullen and General Chen Bingde — is meant to put the two nations on a path toward partnership through military transparency and cooperation. If that goal is realized, the world will become a different place.

The last time the U.S. and China were military allies was for four years during World War II when we shared the common goal of defeating Japanese imperialism. As soon as that was achieved China returned to a civil war in which the U.S. backed the losing side. Since 1949, when China fell to the current communist regime, the U.S. has maintained an uneasy but stubborn quasi-alliance with Taiwan, a state that has otherwise been squashed into diplomatic oblivion by the sheer weight of China’s 1.35 billion.

The cost of this attachment has been a persisting strain on relations with China, our top overseas trading partner and biggest creditor. The over $2 trillion that China holds in Uncle Sam’s debt and the $500 billion annual trade volume now dwarf our economic ties with our leading Asian ally Japan. In May our total trading volume with China was $40 billion, three times as big as the $13 billion with Japan. In other words, if we persist in seeing China as a rival, it’s an extremely awkward rivalry for us, especially when you consider how much the two nations share in common in terms of priorities and values.

I know it sounds odd to talk about sharing values with China. Americans aren’t used to thinking along those lines because we’ve been so deeply conditioned to think that we are a pure and humane democratic society while China is an illegitimate communist society ruled by a few old guys with no regard for human rights. We have to remind ourselves that that’s the rhetoric espoused by some segments of our political culture, not the reality for the actual citizens of China.

I don’t want to waste space here harping on China’s achievements in promoting real human values like food, housing, the dignity of work, the dignity of ridding one’s nation of colonial powers and giving its people the pride of being a global superpower. It suffices to note here that no nation on earth has rescued more people from abject poverty and foreign oppression than China. The fact that it remains a non-democracy isn’t insignificant but is far less important than that it is very successful in building a humane society that is rapidly raising living standards for its people. In other words, humanity would not be better off if the average Chinese had the right to poke out chads to choose their leaders but were too hungry and demoralized to bother. If that were the situation in China, big foreign corporations would have a free hand in carving up the people, the environment and the political system for profits.

Which is exactly what a half dozen imperial powers were doing in China when it was nominally ruled by a dying Ching dynasty in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The foreign powers — most of them European democracies — heaped on the Chinese people every degradation that could be heaped on human beings. Fortunately, a small group of idealistic young Chinese intellectuals were able, by hook and by crook, to save their people.

We Americans who understand China’s predicament, both historical and current, have no quarrels with what was achieved, and is being achieved, under the communist banner. Unfortunately, until recently, most Americans had no incentive to consider China from the perspective of its own people. It took a humbling quintessentially democratic capitalist crisis to show that what matters more than political systems is the values and priorities animating a society. We came to see that — whatever may be its defects — a communist China is not susceptible to having its economic system collapsed by unbridled greed coupled with the kind of nihilistic panic that can be engendered in freewheeling democracies that praise greed above all else.

Now that we see the limits of unbridled greed, we have enough respect for China to tone down the rhetoric and seek to build a partnership to promote common values. If we succeed in this, it will be the first time in human history that the world’s two top powers have collaborated peacefully on a military level to promote common values. Those common values are many and important, and the results could be epochal.

Like the Chinese, we want to create an economy in which the standard of living keeps rising from generation to generation, even year to year, instead of plunging for a decade or two (consider Japan) because we engineer a system that leaves ordinary people vulnerable to unbridled greed followed by nihilistic panic. Like the Chinese we don’t want our modern lifestyle threatened by religious extremists who would like to level the playing field by returning the world to the bronze age, if not earlier. And like the Chinese we don’t want to burn up our young people and our economic resources in a never-ending quest for ultimate military dominance. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown us yet again that that level of dominance is simply not feasible for a people that shares a fragile planet with rivals and enemies.

And if we want an idea of what it would be like to have China go from rival to hot-war enemy, we can consider the Korean War in which, in the fall and winter of 1950, poorly-equipped Chinese troops employed startlingly daring and innovative tactics to evade our air power and inflict some of the worst defeats in U.S. military history, including the longest retreat ever. Six freezing bloody months were followed by two years of costly stalemate back at the DMZ before we regained the sense to negotiate a truce.

If we rule out that kind of testing of each other’s resolve, especially as we seek a plan to balance our budget over the next decade or so, it makes sense to explore with China how to promote our many common values in a world that contains many threats to those values.

With unreliable allies like Pakistan in the war against Muslim terrorists, a reliable one like China with vast territories near our enemies would be invaluable. Given our obvious inability to rein in North Korea’s ambition to build intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the U.S. with nuclear warheads, China’s cooperation would be essential. Given our desire to protect oil tankers and other ships passing near Somalia, China’s willingness to shoulder much of the burden of attacking the pirates’ land bases may enable a meaningful solution. Even our desire to protect ourselves from the specter of global warming will require close partnership with China which has become extremely aggressive in green technologies. And maybe we can learn from China something about the advantages of being able to set long-term goals that won’t be dashed every time a new party comes into power.

With all these benefits of a partnership with China at stake, let’s hope that we won’t revert to a pointless rivalry animated by sheer demagoguery just because election season is approaching.