In the past couple of days I've had a handful of discussions about the future relationship between China and the United States. There is a growing concern about China's emergence on the world scene and the perceived threat to Washington's global hegemony, with some folks getting the sense that, in true realist fashion, the two will inevitably become rivals in a new Cold War-like scenario.
If China becomes a rival or enemy of Washington, it will mark the greatest strategic failure of the West in centuries. Both sides have far too much invested in one another, with China owning a significant portion of the U.S. overseas debt. Any significant provocation would thus spell disaster for the global economy. Militarily, China's build-up is actually more of a blessing for the United States because it will also somebody else to become responsible for handling crises that may/can/will arise in Asia. Washington may serve now as the global policeman, but it is a role that many are not comfortable with, either in the United States or around the world. China is merely assuming its natural role as a regional hegemon, and Washington would do well to be accomodating of that and work with China to strengthen bilateral relations so that they may work together on regional and global issues.
The predominant reason that China's military rise is seen as a threat is because of the US military guarantee to Taiwan. Washington fears (and justly so) that any increase of China's power will cause the leadership on Taiwan to get extremely antsy and provoke some sort of conflict between the island and the mainland, which would trigger a traditional great-power war between China and the US. That should be avoided at all costs. Both parties possess nuclear weapons, huge conventional standing armies, and a war between them would cost millions in lives. The fate of Taiwan is not worth that loss. I profess that I am not totally up-to-date on the status of relations between Taiwan and the mainland regarding unification, but these discussions should move along so that the natural reunification of China can occur without sparking a global incident.
We may not like some characteristics of the Chinese leadership and their political system, but we have far too much at stake to go down the traditional path of the realists and assume that any rising power is doing so automatically to challenge the United States for global supremacy. We need to integrate China into the functioning Core of world powers, give them the respect they deserve, and work alongside them to defuse some very testy issues in the region. We can and should still chide them (privately) for their record on human rights and urge them towards a more democratic system, but we should not allow such matters to cloud overall judgment on the best course. Statecraft has taken a major hit in recent years, but forging a partnership and working with China is a much greater objective in scale, scope, and ambition than merely acquiescing to traditional thinking that it is inevitable that rising powers will automatically challenge a hegemon for supremacy.