LOS ANGELES — Is China only playing nice with the United States now in order to buy time and consolidate its power so that it has the capacity to hurt it later? You’d be surprised how many Americans think this — or maybe you wouldn’t!

Who knows about China for sure? Unlike hindsight, paranoia isn’t always perfect, and neither are pundits. This column, for a decade now, has advocated the maximum degree of engagement with China. But punditry about Beijing’s true intentions is about as dicey as predicting the fertility of mating pandas.

Optimists can look to the soothing presentations of Chinese high priests such as Qian Qichen. Qian recently dropped by Los Angeles to promote China’s views on foreign policy, as well as his book “Ten Episodes in China’s Diplomacy.” He is a highly influential former vice premier, who during the 1990s was virtually the vicar of articulation with regard to Chinese foreign relations.

His most recent articulation of Chinese foreign policy, in Los Angeles, spurned any mention of “communism” or “socialism.” According to the silver-haired Qian, his country will threaten no one, take no prisoners (because there’ll be no war), and somehow make everyone wealthier as it gets wealthier (OK, but watch your wallet, I say!).

The overall idea under conveyance to the hotel-ballroom audience was that China and America need to emphasize the steady process of cool and reasoned diplomacy, exploiting the benefits of overlapping national interests, while minimizing and managing the disruptive, if not conflict-creating, impacts of differences in interests or perspectives.

But is such a pastoral vision a realistic and sustainable formula for the Sino-U.S. relationship? Many Americans will doubt it, for it seems too good to be true.

But the alternative is too depressing to bear: It’s an old-man’s grumpy vision of a bilateral relationship that puts China in the bad-guy role formerly held by the late Soviet Union (the “evil empire”) and triumphantly hands America the good-guy role of the world’s savior.

Are the dynamics of world politics today so primitive that a new cold war is the only way forward?

Sympathy for such a grim view — for turning back the clock, for taking sides, and for dividing the region into pro- or anti-red — is hard to find in Asia. Recently, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ran just that idea up the Australian flagpole in trilateral talks that included otherwise amenable Japan, but she found that the Aussies were notably unenthusiastic — an emotion that doesn’t come easily to them when Americans ask for help.

So too, India has almost zero interest in serving as a China counterweight, much less joining the anti-red team. It’s too weighed down by its own innumerable domestic problems (not to mention Kashmir and nuclear-armed Pakistan) to bother antagonizing anyone whose national interests might overlap with its own.

Qian’s vision of pastoral persistence is a much better sell than Rice’s intimations of a new bipolar world. This is also the view in another excellent and timely book: “Power Shift: China and Asia’s New Dynamics.” Its author, David Shambaugh of George Washington University, is one of America’s most level-headed China experts. He is perhaps most famous for emphasizing that if we wish to make the Chinese into our enemy, they will become one.

Like it or not, he notes, the new power balance in Asia has been shifting from Tokyo toward Beijing — and away from Washington. This shift is not complete and it needn’t become total or alarming. America still has a huge and vital role to play in Asia unless it misplays its cards, creates an enemy out of China and in the process alienates much of the rest of Asia.

The key for Americans is to begin the process of serious and sustained public debate over what is an optimal Chinese-American relationship. Rather than seeking to enlist Asians in a China-hedging coalition, our national government needs to enlist the American people in a huge and historic national effort to understand how to maximize the harmony and minimize the friction.

Public diplomacy — for the all-important China question — best begins at home, not abroad. We have to convince ourselves of what our vision is before we can convince anyone else of what their vision ought to be.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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