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Chicago Tribune: China is a U.S. friend — and maybe foe

December 27, 2018

One of the most consequential events of the past 40 years escaped attention when it happened on Dec. 22, 1978. Only years later would it become evident that China’s decision at a Communist Party meeting to allow farmers to sell excess grain at market prices would reverberate — would, in fact, change the world.

China’s economy is second in size only to that of the United States. President Xi Jinping rules as Communist Party chief, but the country operates in hybrid fashion: It’s an authoritarian state that embraces free market principles. China has both billionaires and political prisoners.

It is a crucial trade and investment partner of the United States. It also is a growing military power in the Pacific, bumping up against the U.S. mission to keep the peace. That means China is both a customer of the United States and a competitor. Friend but possibly foe. The relationship is complex and unresolved.

The rise of China does not present an existential threat to the United States. The two countries are entwined economically, dependent on each other to maintain living standards and therefore motivated to get along. This has always been the promise of globalization: Trade brings countries, even distant countries with conflicting political systems, closer together. The current tariff squabble between the two countries looks menacing but at some point will subside.

The biggest risk factors are China’s lack of democracy and loner status as world power. With its increased wealth and influence, China inevitably will assert itself internationally and seek to protect its position militarily. China’s leadership operates unchecked by independent legislative and judicial branches of the government. What will stop those leaders from overreaching? What prevents a cataclysmic Chinese miscalculation when tensions inevitably arise over Taiwan or navigation rights in the South China Sea?

It may be China’s destiny to match the United States in wealth and firepower. Those are not reasons to fear China. They are reasons to engage the country today as a partner and challenge Chinese intentions when they appear threatening.

Understanding that China is an old country but still an emerging global player is critical to both aims.

— Chicago Tribune

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