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The Fear Factor in US-China Relations

Opinion polls indicate that one-third of Americans believe that China will “soon dominate the world,” while nearly half view China’s emergence as a “threat to world peace.” In turn, many Chinese fear that the United States will not accept their “peaceful rise.” Americans and Chinese must avoid such exaggerated fears. Maintaining good US-China relations will be a key determinant of global stability in this century.

Perhaps the greatest threat to the bilateral relationship is the belief that conflict is inevitable. Throughout history, whenever a rising power creates fear among its neighbors and other great powers, that fear becomes a cause of conflict. In such circumstances, seemingly small events can trigger an unforeseen and disastrous chain reaction. 

Today, the greatest prospect of a destabilizing incident lies in the complex relationships across the Taiwan Strait. China, which regards Taiwan as an integral part of its territory that has sheltered behind the US navy since the days of the Chinese civil war, vows that any Taiwanese declaration of independence will be met by force.

The US does not challenge China’s sovereignty, but it wants a peaceful settlement that will maintain Taiwan’s democratic institutions. In Taiwan itself, there is a growing sense of national identity, but a sharp division between pragmatists of the “pan-blue alliance,” who realize that geography will require them to find a compromise with the mainland, and the ruling “pan-green alliance,” which aspires in varying degrees to achieve independence.