Is China a threat to the US?

December 02, 2009 | Posted by Chris

It depends upon who you ask, but it's safe to say no.

At the 2009 Aspen Ideas Festival a lively discussion centering on this very question took place. On one side was Niall Ferguson, a British scholar who teaches at Harvard, and on the other was James Fallows, The Atlantic Monthly's national correspondent who recently lived in Beijing and Shanghai for 3 years.

Ferguson took the view that China and America had for many years been locked in a tight symbiotic relationship, but now "conflict and potential catastrophe" loom, because he says China resembles a pre-WWI Germany that is "a growing, aggressive, nationalistic power" with far-reaching ambitions.

Fallows, on the other side of the debate, said Ferguson misunderstood the intentions of the Chinese leaders. He cited interviews with Chinese officials that are" thrilled to be integrated in the world" after a long struggle to get their society back on track. The Chinese conception of the future of the world, Fallows contended, was not one of domination, but rather effective cooperation.

Both sides agreed their arguments come down to US debt. By 2019, U.S. debt is expected to grow to more than $9 trillion, and much of that is owned by one country -- China. Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University and a top economic adviser to President Obama, calls the situation "the balance of financial terror," because a drop in the value of the dollar will result in a drop in the value of the Chinese reserves, and vice versa.

Beyond the questions of US debt, there are three points that should be kept in mind when considering what the rise of China means for the US. The first is that there are deep ties and respect between the US and China, with many Chinese leaders having been educated in the US and many foreigners -- especially younger people -- spending time in China learning the culture and language. The second is that China is definitely not an expansionist communist state and is not interested in exporting its present way of government, because, as scholars like William Overholt make clear, the Chinese view their system of government as transitional only. Lastly, like the Chinese economy, Chinese society is very fragmented and pluralistic, so there is no monolithic "China" or "Chinese" people with a single intent or certain actions. The truth is China is just too big for any one person or thing to speak for everyone and everything else in China.

A point perhaps most salient to understanding China's rise was made in the discussion between Fallows and Ferguson. New York Times columnist David Brooks writes, "At one point, while Fallows was defending Chinese intentions, Ferguson shot back: 'You've been in China too long.' Fallows responded that there must be a happy medium between being in China too long and being in China too little."

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