Human rights will be a source of tension as long as Beijing persecutes dissidents, but it's no cause for war. And the economic changes China has made are bound to lead, over time, to political liberalization.
China bears little resemblance to Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union in its approach to the world. The post-Mao government has shown no interest in grabbing territory from neighbors, enforcing obedience or promoting revolution. It has no dangerous ideology to spread. It has exhibited a consistent desire to focus on internal development.
It has done little to make trouble beyond its borders. China has repeatedly shown itself to be, writes Princeton scholar Aaron Friedberg, "a cautious power with limited aims."
What about the economic realm? In our daily lives, someone who sells us things and lends us money is to be valued, not feared. China is often accused of keeping its exchange rate low to benefit its export sector. But that's not exactly an act of naked aggression.
In fact, it's a favor to American consumers, who get goods at a lower price than they otherwise would. If shipping us freighters full of merchandise were a way to reduce us to submission, we'd have been taken over by Japan 20 years ago.
China's rapid growth has been a good thing, not a bad one. It has transformed a backward communist nation into a thriving, mostly capitalist one. It has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. It has brought China into the world economy and the World Trade Organization -- where, if we think it's using unfair trade practices, we can bring action to stop them.
As long as it remains an authoritarian state, China is not going to be our BFF. But it is not fated to be an enemy, unless we decide to make it one.
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