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Engaging the “New China”

September 2, 2008

In the past 30 years China has experienced a wave of growth and change. The current China bears very little resemblance to the old China of the Cold War. Throughout the course of the United States’ and China’s 140-year history, relations have ranged from one extreme to the other. During World War II and the 1970s and ’80s the United States and China were allies—first against Japan and later against the Soviet Union. However, after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) gained control of the Chinese mainland in 1949 and throughout the ’50s and ’60s, the United States and China were bitter enemies, even coming to blows during the Korean War. The Tiananmen crackdown of 1989 marked another low point; however, relations have gradually gotten better over the past two decades, despite some difficulties. China has alternatively been referred to as, among other things, friend, enemy, rogue state, peer competitor, strategic partner and now “responsible stakeholder.”

For the past two decades China has made great gains in national development and economic growth and now stands as one of the most important states on the world scene. It has been greatly aided in its success by a receptive international community (led by the United States) and an enabling international economic and political framework. As a “responsible stakeholder” China is being asked to contribute its support to strengthening the international order. As two of the most important members of the international community, the United States and China are both affected by some of the same threats—terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the energy crisis and environmental degradation—and coordinated action to effectively combat these problems will be required. However, while China may be cooperative on certain issues, it may not be helpful on others. China benefits greatly from increased international peace and stability, but this does not mean that it will go along with the United States on all issues. In some areas, China will continue to stick closely to its core national interests and maintain a policy consistent with its long-held foreign policy principles. Thus, it is important to realize that China is neither always an enemy nor always a friend, and that we must see China for what it truly is and not how we want it to be. To best understand Chinese interests and policies and the sweeping changes that have taken place in China over the past two decades—as well as their ramifications for U.S.-China policy—it is necessary to understand the “new China.”