"Ours is the most important bilateral relationship in the world," Berger said on Sunday before nearly 400 people gathered in the main sanctuary of Adath Israel in Merion Station. "It's been 34 years since President Nixon traveled to Beijing for 'the week that changed the world.'
"Overall, the U.S. and China have come a long way," he continued. "In economic terms, our ties have exploded since then. China has taken over Japan as the third-largest U.S. trading partner."
The choice of China for the topic of the 2006 Ida S. Mandell Memorial Lecture might have seemed a bit odd to some, given the Jewish community's preoccupation with American policy in another corner of the world. In fact, the Middle East came up only in the last few of the dozen or so questions posed during a short give-and-take with audience members after the main presentation.
(The queries dealt with what Berger, who helped guide the Middle East peace process in the 1990s, thought of President George W. Bush's refusal to fund the Hamas-led Palestinian authority – he fully endorsed the approach – and China's relationship with Israel, which Berger deemed "positive.")
In his opening remarks, Rabbi Steven Wernick set the stage by quoting the Torah portion read the previous day: "If there's one mitzvah that stands out as the example of Jewish morality, it's 'vee-ahavta l'reiecha kamocha' " or "to love one's neighbor as oneself."
"If only", he continued, "it were always as easy to obey this commandment as it is to quote it."
Taken as a whole, Berger's address was decidedly peaceful.
Berger – an attorney-by-trade who presided over the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Clinton – asserted that the United States has nothing to fear militarily from China. But the dangers may come through inaction, not in the form of bullets and blood, he noted: "What worries me is not that China will threaten the U.S. directly, but that it will end up drifting into mindless confrontation," which in the long run will cost too much in wasted opportunities and needless expenditures.
He pointed out that while China – which is in the process of shepherding its society from a rural, government-driven, class-equal economy to an urban, manufacturing and market-driven system – has drastically increased its defense budget to modernize its military, the Communist nation's defense expenditures still amount to just 10 percent of what the United States spends on its military.
The economic picture is sobering, he stated.
"The U.S. is China's biggest export market. Today, Wal-Mart, one American company, buys more from Chinese suppliers than does Russia," he said.
In many ways, Berger surmised, Washington – its memories of Beijing's 1989 violent crackdown of student protests in Tiananmen Square still fresh – is looking to the past, while American businesses are projecting forward.
"For all the ways our destinies are inextricably intertwined, for many in Washington, including the Congress, China's rise is cause for alarm," he said. "They feel threatened by China's strategy of international investment.
"But if you talk to American business executives trying to gain a foothold in China's growing consumer market, in general, they're optimistic.
"The future is inevitable," he continued. "Both China and the United States will be nations of global consequence.
"To be sure, our nations will always have differences," added Berger, looking to the rising cost of gas to highlight the potential in America and China coupling their combined economic might.
"The U.S. and China are the two biggest oil importers. We can face off as competitors, or we can collaborate as major consumers" to lower the price of petroleum, "keep sea lanes safe and develop new energy sources."