THE spectre of a rising China has returned to haunt Washington. This is the principal lesson I have drawn from a week spent in the US. The attention of US policy-makers has turned once again towards China. Relations between the world's incumbent superpower and Asia's rising giant are, indeed, of great importance. But the correct conclusions will not be drawn from this debate if Washington insists that the onus of change is on China alone. The US, too, must reconsider its role in the world.
I learned at first hand about the sensitivity of Washington's "China question" from participation in a conference marking the launch of the Brookings Institution's imaginative new China Initiative. A laudable aim of this initiative is to combat the hostility to China now surfacing in Washington.
Listing the anxieties is, alas, all too easy. Yet the US could reasonably regard China's resurgence as a triumph. Indeed, this is precisely what Robert Zoellick, the deputy secretary of state, said recently.
As Mr Zoellick remarked, since 1978 the US has supported China's opening to the world and to the world economy. Moreover, "our policy has succeeded remarkably well: the dragon emerged and joined the world". Singapore's Kishore Mahbubani makes the same point more broadly: "As the main architect of the world order today, the US should be among the first to celebrate China's progress."
Yet celebratory is exactly what many Americans do not feel: they view China solely through what Mr Zoellick called "the lens of fear". Thus, Mr Zoellick's speech had two audiences: the obvious one was China; the more important one was the US itself.
Mr Zoellick told China that it needs to change neither what it is nor what it aspires to, but how it behaves. If China is to be a "responsible stakeholder", he suggests it needs to take account of its responsibility for the global system. Among instances of China's failure to do so, Mr Zoellick lists its mercantilist attempts to "lock up" energy supplies, its support for unsavoury oil producers (such as Sudan), its toleration of "rampant theft" of intellectual property, its burgeoning current account surplus, its need to contribute to completion of the Doha round of trade negotiations and its potential role in halting proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Mr Zoellick's remarks on China's role have force. But more important still is what he says -- and does not say -- about the proper response of the US. He insists that the US "welcomes a confident, peaceful and prosperous China". Alas, many Americans disagree with this view, Some regard China as a new Soviet Union; others regard it as a 19th century Germany, reborn.
Yet China is no Soviet Union: it seeks neither to spread anti-American ideologies, nor to struggle against democracy across the globe, nor to oppose capitalism, nor to overturn the international system. Equally, the balance of power politics of late-19th century Europe make no sense. Then they led to disaster. Today, as Mr Zoellick says: "We are too interconnected to try to hold China at arm's length, hoping to promote other powers in Asia at its expense". Still worse would be to try to halt China's development altogether. That would be both morally wicked and practically calamitous.
Yet avoiding such stupidities is not enough. The US has to reconsider the systemic consequences of its actions.
Many Americans would, after all, now accept the following propositions about the appropriate US role in the world: as sole superpower and a uniquely moral force, the US has both the capacity and the right to act as it sees fit on the world stage. The US is exceptional, they believe, not just in its size and power, but also as a moral agent. This point of view suffers from two sizeable defects: the first is that few outside the US believe it is true; the second is that it cannot underpin a co-operative global order.
Of the great powers of the past several centuries, the US is indeed the most benign. Even so it is not hard to produce a list of its follies - and worse. For this reason, few outside the US would concede to the US the carte blanche it desires.
Moreover, these claims are incompatible with the requirement that principles of action must apply equally to everybody in the same position. This is true within societies; and must also be true between them. Thus, "I should do what I want and you should also do what I want" is not a morally legitimate basis of action.
Yet precisely such double standard were inherent in the question from Donald Rumsfeld, defence secretary, last June: "Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder: why this growing investment? Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases?"
To this, the Chinese can justifiably react by asking why the US needs to spend as much on its military as the rest of the world put together. With Canada and Mexico as its neighbours, why does it feel so threatened? To this the US would respond that it has special responsibilities as guarantor of world peace and, in any case, threatens no other nation. China, in its turn, could then ask who elected the US global policeman and why, given the public debate in the US about whether and how to curb its rise, it should trust its security to the US.
China will, in short, take both US behaviour and the principles that underlie it as the moral norms of the international system. If the US acts on the assumption that it is entitled to remove remote threats by force, so surely will China. A unilateralist US can surely expect an equally unilateralist China. The biggest question for the US is therefore not how China can be a responsible stakeholder but how the US itself can be one.
In deciding on any of its actions, the US must ask itself whether this is how it wants China, too, to behave in the coming decades. That is the fundamental debate on the US role in the world that must lie ahead. The US needs to decide whether it stands for the power of universal principles or the principle of unilaterally exercised power. It should do so, moreover, in the expectation that the China it will ultimately have is one that is no better than its own example deserves.
Under syndication arrangement with FE