No bilateral relationship is likely to have a more significant impact on U.S. security than America's relationship with China. How relations between Washington and Beijing will evolve as China becomes increasingly powerful and assertive remains uncertain. Some U.S. political leaders and policy experts believe that if the United States actively attempts to contain or limit China's rise, it will stoke antagonism that could be avoided with a more adept strategy and conciliatory approach. The goal, this group believes, should be to allow China to assume a leading role in the existing political and security system to discourage Beijing from challenging it. Other political leaders and policy experts think that China is determined to contain and shrink U.S. influence in the Asia-Pacific region. Hence it is better to make a stand now, before Chinese power grows further and Beijing establishes regional dominance.
Both of these schools of thought assume that the United States, through its policy choices, will determine whether future U.S.-China relations are cooperative or antagonistic. They are both probably mistaken: As hard as it might be for Americans to accept, the U.S. may be unable to control the evolution of U.S.-China relations. Instead, factors inside China will determine the outcome.
Recent U.S. history with a peer competitor offers a window into this dynamic. When American policymakers struggled to understand the Soviet Union and frame U.S. strategy toward that nation in the aftermath of World War II, George Kennan, the State Department's foremost Soviet expert, provided the key: The relationship, Kennan argued, was shaped less by U.S. policy and preferences than by Russian history and the insecurity of the Soviet regime.