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America must start treating China as a friend

17/11/2009|Bill OwensTHE FINANCIAL TIMES
It is time to reflect on a rapidly changing world. We need to make a frank and pragmatic assessment of the US relationship with China, whose rise in wealth and influence is unprecedented.

China will soon be the world’s second largest economy. It represents 1.4bn people, who are, according to the polls, very well-disposed to the American people and America.

Yet that affinity is changing as the US girds itself against what journalists and politicians portray as an adversarial China that takes our jobs, poses a security threat and can never be trusted as a friend.

It is often politically expedient to paint China as an adversary, or worse, a future enemy. Our national security apparatus is aiming to continue the present level of defence spending and emphasising 30-year-old legislation that is doing more harm than good.
The Taiwan Relations Act was passed in 1979 after the establishment of relations with the People’s Republic of China and the breaking of relations with the Republic of China. It is the basis on which we continue to sell arms to Taiwan, an act that is not in our best interest.

A thoughtful review of this outdated legislation is warranted and would be viewed by China as a genuine attempt to set a new course for a relationship that can develop into openness, trust and even friendship.

The first step to halting arms sales might be to observe that the Chinese have stopped the short range missile build-up across the Taiwan Straits (I believe this is true). The US could then stop selling arms to Taiwan unless that build-up was renewed. We must always protect the democracy and freedoms Taiwan has developed – but weapons sales do not do this.

We must consider the facts. China will continue to grow four to five times faster than the US. In less than 30 years China’s GDP will equal that of the US and we will live in a world of two great and equal powers. Importantly, if China funds its military at a global standard of 3-4 per cent of GDP, it will have the capacity for a military equal to or greater than that of the US (they get more from the yuan than we from the dollar, manpower costs are less, and production is cheaper because of its scale).

At that time, friends and allies such as Japan, Korea, India and Indonesia will be faced with a difficult choice (and yes, it will be a choice) between China, a rapidly growing and influential regional power, which is continuing to grow and trade in much larger quantities, or stick with the US (a 12-hour flight away). Is that the scenario we would set for the future? I believe not.

The solution is to approach the US/China relationship not with hedging, competition or watchfulness, but with co-operation, openness and trust.

We are making this choice now and will continue to make it implicitly in these few critical years as the relationship becomes defined. The visit of Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, a few months ago, was in the spirit of such a new relationship. President Barack Obama’s visit offers a new opportunity to further it.

I believe the Chinese people and their leaders will be receptive, allowing both sides to put down tired talking points and finally engage in substantive discussion.

Following Mr Obama’s visit to Beijing, I hope we see the following kinds of military initiatives: an agreement to a thoughtful review of the implementation of TRA and other outdated legislation; a commitment to true military-to-military engagement across all levels including academic exchanges between military academies; a partnership in fighting terrorism and addressing, as partners, non-proliferation of nuclear weapons (including North Korea and Iran); and an approach to addressing the increasing threat of cyberattack, perhaps with a “no first use of cyberattack” policy.

Many think the Chinese are unable or unwilling to accept such a progressive and innovative agenda. We will never know unless we try.

The US-China relationship is a vital interest for the two countries and the world. Throughout history, great powers have tended to become adversaries. Now, for a few years, we have a chance to break that cycle. It will take strong and enduring commitment on both sides. But a new and engaging relationship is imperative for our common good.

Retired Admiral Bill Owens is a former vice-chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff


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