This week's meeting in Mar-a-Lago between Chinese President Xi Jin-ping and President Donald Trump is arguably the most important foreign policy gathering of the still-young Trump administration. The trajectory of the next four years will hinge in no small part on whether the two countries can avoid a trade or any other kind of war; in the longer run, it will be one sort of 21st century if the United States and China collaborate on regional and global challenges — and a very different one if the two cannot work together or, worse, come to blows.
There is a school of thought that predicts this relationship will become adversarial. Named for the great historian of the Peloponnesian War, the “Thucydides Trap” holds that cold or hot war is all but inevitable between the United States, the existing great power of this era, and a rising China. But such a conclusion is unwarranted; unlike Russia, China has a broad-based economy and is integrated into the global economy. China has good reason not to act recklessly abroad lest it place its economic interests (and its internal political stability) at risk.
Indeed, so far the two countries have proved the historical pessimists wrong. The two countries, sworn foes for the first two decades of the Cold War, shared an even greater dislike of the Soviet Union. It was the great power version of the adage that enemy of my enemy is my friend. Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger understood the depth of the Sino-Soviet split and made the difficult choices required for the United States and “Mainland” China to move closer together in a manner that weakened the strategic position of the Soviet Union.