Is U.S.-China Competition Over-Hyped?

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Both problems face real challenges, but those don't necessarily include one another.

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President Obama shakes hands with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Seoul. Reuters

Last week I participated in the Fortune Brainstorm GREEN conference, a two-and-a-half day meeting in California that brought together money people, inventors, CEOs, chief sustainability officers, journalists, and policy analysts to talk about what is going on in the world of clean and green tech. The meeting struck me as unusual for a couple of reasons.

First, there was a lot of positive energy--no pun intended--engendered primarily by the inventor types and CEOs (not surprising, I suppose, since they are the ones actually involved in creating things), as well as the sustainability officers who are always thinking about how to make their companies do more with less. Of course people were concerned about the future of clean energy given the lack of a multi-year commitment to supporting clean tech research and development and deployment from Washington.  However, overwhelmingly, the participants were committed to making economic growth and environmental protection work together, and brought a can-do attitude to the table. This was a pleasant respite from life along the Northeast Corridor, where the dominant refrain is less "yes we can" and more "no you can't."

The conference was also notable for its lack of focus on China. Of course China was discussed--my panel was on China, for example--but so were India, Germany, and Indonesia. Despite the ubiquity of media headlines such as "U.S. Retakes the Lead from China in Clean Energy Race," or "China First in Clean Energy," there was no hyping of the China threat or over-focus on competition with China. Rather China was discussed in the context of the country's on-the-ground reality: where are things working (e.g. deployment of clean energy technologies) and where are they not (e.g. ability to attract venture capital). This strikes me as healthy not just in the context of clean energy but also for the broader U.S.-China relationship. Too often China and the United States are viewed through the prism of the other, fostering competition where none need exist.

Tsinghua scholar Yan Xuetong, for example, describes the U.S.-China relationship as a zero sum game and a "race for global supremacy." He sees China's weakness--its soft power--through the strength of U.S. soft power and argues that the two countries are engaged in "a battle for people's hearts and minds" and that is what "will determine who eventually prevails." Yet the development of China's soft power is internal to China; it has nothing to do with the United States. Former Singapore Ambassador to the United Nations Kishore Mahbubani frequently underscores the perceived weakness of the United States in competition with China. In a recent piece for CNN, he commented, "Let me give you a very simple example. The most shocking thing I've learned recently for someone who lived in New York for 10 and a half years is that the Tappan Zee Bridge, which carries thousands of cars can only survive another 10 years. Isn't that shocking? In the meantime, while you can't hold up one bridge across one river, guess what, China is building the world's fastest trains and the world's best airports." While Mahbubani may simply be encouraging the United States to modernize its infrastructure, there is no need to frame the critique in the context of a competition with China.

The U.S.-China relationship has real issues it needs to confront and real cooperation is limited at best. Why add to the depressingly long list of concerns with manufactured challenges? Better to adopt the approach of the innovators, chief sustainability officers, and CEOs by focusing on developing real solutions to the real problems each country faces.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Elizabeth Economy is a senior fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and blogs for "Asia Unbound."

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