The Call: US and China on a collision course

By Ian Bremmer Some want to see the US and China form a comprehensive political and economic partnership, an alliance of pragmatism that provides workable solutions to key international problems: the global economic slowdown, climate change, collective security, and other issues. Those who make this argument ignore the reality that China remains a developing country ...

By , the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media.
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585262_090604_collision2.jpg
of the United States of China during the day 2 preliminary game at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games in the Beijing Olympic Basketball Gymnasium on August 10, 2008 in Beijing, China.

By Ian Bremmer

Some want to see the US and China form a comprehensive political and economic partnership, an alliance of pragmatism that provides workable solutions to key international problems: the global economic slowdown, climate change, collective security, and other issues. Those who make this argument ignore the reality that China remains a developing country with serious internal challenges ahead. This will sharply limit the Chinese leadership's eagerness for taking on new international burdens, however triumphalist their rhetoric becomes.

By Ian Bremmer

Some want to see the US and China form a comprehensive political and economic partnership, an alliance of pragmatism that provides workable solutions to key international problems: the global economic slowdown, climate change, collective security, and other issues. Those who make this argument ignore the reality that China remains a developing country with serious internal challenges ahead. This will sharply limit the Chinese leadership’s eagerness for taking on new international burdens, however triumphalist their rhetoric becomes.

More to the point, U.S. and Chinese advantages are not as complementary as some think. An America that is gradually losing much of its economic advantage over fast-emerging states will continue to take on much of the geopolitical heavy lifting –on nonproliferation, on the Middle East peace process, on the challenge of quelling militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, on Iraqi stability, on risks that Iran will destabilize the region, on piracy, and plenty of other issues. The U.S. military and U.S. taxpayer will begin to feel even more over-extended, and the electorate will challenge U.S. policymakers to justify America’s global security presence.

Beijing may soon announce that China is building its first aircraft carrier. That will set off alarm bells in the American media, but it’s really much ado about not much. China’s navy is focused on protecting Asian shipping lanes. Building one carrier isn’t the same as assembling a complete carrier battle group. The United States has 11 such groups. In other words, for all the talk about China’s future blue water navy, Beijing will not be able to project a global naval presence for decades to come.

Yet, though the United States will maintain its military dominance for the foreseeable future, China will feel that it’s doing more than its share in the provision of public goods on the geo-economic side. In particular, the Chinese will be expected to buy U.S. Treasuries as Americans inflate away the value of those assets. That’s why high-level Chinese officials have been talking up the idea of a new reserve currency.

With this obvious mutual dependence, can’t Washington and Beijing form a mutually profitable partnership? The United States makes the world safe for Chinese commerce while, in the interest of global economic stability, China continues to subsidize U.S. spending?

Don’t bet on it. Here’s why:

The economic downturn will move domestic constituencies in both countries to complain about their share of burdens and dismiss much of the value provided by the other side. Populist-minded U.S. political officials will get in front of this public anger to avoid being swallowed up by it. Not so long ago, the Chinese leadership could simply have shrugged off this problem on their side. But an increasingly active Chinese blogosphere and a more assertive local press can, without directly challenging the Party’s right to rule, help drive public demand for action that the government can’t afford to ignore.

But here’s the bigger problem: Those on the U.S. side providing the geopolitical leadership (mainly in the Pentagon) and those on the Chinese side managing foreign economic policy don’t speak the same institutional language. Their values, their worldviews, and their vocabularies are entirely different. There is not enough common ground on which these two institutions can forge a partnership.

That’s why the U.S. and Chinese governments are likely to find themselves increasingly at odds over the next several years –and why hopes for a G2 solution to a wide range of transnational problems are likely to be dashed.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. He is also the host of the television show GZERO World With Ian Bremmer. Twitter: @ianbremmer

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