Debate: Sino-US ties

Updated: 2011-12-06 07:56

(China Daily)

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What does the future hold for relations between a fast rising China and a waning United States? Two experts give us different arguments but arrive at similar conclusions.

Dennis V. Hickey

China matters and matters a lot for the US

Since the establishment of New China in 1949, Sino-American relations have passed through several stages. From roughly 1950 until 1972, bilateral relations were severely strained; the two governments did not even recognize each other.

Because of the farsighted leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong and former US president Richard M. Nixon, however, this frosty relationship thawed during the early 1970s. A variety of economic, political and strategic factors contributed to US-China rapprochement, but strategic considerations were the driving force. Common opposition to the hegemonic aspirations of the Soviet Union brought the two governments together, and formal diplomatic ties were finally established in 1979. With the end of the Cold War, however, the strategic rationale for US-China rapprochement seemingly vanished. Concerns once overlooked for the sake of national security - including economic ties, human rights and military policies - became major issues of contention.

Since the 1990s, the US has been sorting out its relationship with China. Is the country a friend, an enemy or something else? Does it represent a threat or an opportunity for the international community? Where are Sino-American relations headed? Analysts and media pundits have been asking such questions for more than two decades. Perhaps this helps explain why the relationship has experienced a series of "ups and downs" and "twists and turns."

Many Americans support a policy of engagement with China. Although blasted by opponents as "Panda Huggers", or more recently, "Appeasers", they enthusiastically applaud China's reform policies, contend that China plays a constructive role in global politics and argue that it might best be described as a "responsible stake-holder."

Broadly speaking, the "Panda Huggers" claim that the US needs China's help to cope with a variety of international challenges. And they believe that harsh rhetoric and bullying is no substitute for rational dialogue and compromise. In short, according to their view, China ought to be viewed as a friend rather than a threat.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, one encounters those who promote an American containment policy for China. Described as "Dragon Slayers", these individuals support the use of "hard power" to cope with the rise of China. The "Dragon Slayers" want the US to maintain both its nuclear and conventional military superiority in the Western Pacific and employ "alliance diplomacy" as a means to thwart perceived Chinese territorial ambitions. For example, bolstering the US' security relationship with Japan is often cited as a means to "contain" China.

The "lunatic fringe" element in the second camp goes so far as to advocate a "preventive war" against China and/or support for separatist forces in the Chinese mainland and Taiwan.

To be sure, engagement and containment should be considered only as "ideal types" on the opposite ends of a broad spectrum of potential US strategies. Not surprisingly, current policy fashions elements of both approaches into an over-arching US grand strategy. Some describe this policy as "hedging".

What does hedging mean? In the business world, some investment companies purchase securities hoping that they will rise in value. But they also bet against some stocks to ensure that they will "win" even if the market suffers a downturn. This "hedging" strategy helps protect the companies irrespective of swings in the market. In a similar vein, the US has adopted a "hedging" approach toward China.

On the one hand, the US openly applauds China's reform policies and calls for close and productive relations. For example, US Ambassador to China Gary Locke said recently: "If our people, our business people, our scientists, our students, can really join together, we can solve not just the challenges and the problems facing each of our countries; we can actually solve many of the problems facing the entire world." On the other, Washington is hedging its bets. One does not have to look far for examples. For instance, the US is bolstering its security ties with Australia, Vietnam, Japan, the Philippines and some other countries.

Moreover, US President Barack Obama pledged recently that the US would make its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region a top priority. And the US has junked its neutral position toward disputes in the South China Sea and declared that it has a "national interest" in a multilateral resolution to settle competing claims.

It is not clear whether a policy of engagement or containment will dominate the US' relations with China in future years. But the "smart money" is betting on a policy closer to the engagement end of the scale - with some degree of "hedging" tossed in for insurance. This is because China's cooperation is essential if the global community hopes to resolve a wide range of critical problems, including the worldwide economic tsunami, international terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, environmental degradation, health issues, dwindling energy supplies and the recurring crises on the Korean Peninsula, to name just a few.

Given the fact that China is the world's second largest economy, fastest growing economy, and the single largest foreign holder of US government debt, it is clear that the country is important to the US. Add to that fact that China is the largest exporter of goods (with 9.6 percent of the global share) and the largest holder of foreign exchange reserves (which now exceed $3 trillion), and it is easy to see that China matters - and it matters a lot.

Will such considerations influence Washington's relations with Beijing? You can bet on it. As Obama explained: "The relationship between the US and China will shape the 21st century . . . our ability to partner with each other is a prerequisite for many of the most pressing global challenges."

Times have changed. We are now living in an era of globalization and economic interdependence. Although some elements of a "hedging" strategy will continue to make sense for both sides because of problems left over from history and the realities of an anarchic international system, the US' containment policy should have been consigned to the trash heap of world history along with the Cold War.

The author is the director of the Graduate Program in Global Studies at Missouri State University and the author of numerous books and articles on East Asian politics.

Jin Canrong

Cooperation should be future policy

Sino-US relations went through a bumpy 2010, and President Hu Jintao's state visit to the US at the start of this year was a sign of goodwill to patch up bilateral differences and forge stronger ties in 2011. But Sino-US ties spiraled downward thanks to US arms sales to Taiwan, the South China Sea dispute, tension over the yuan's exchange rate, and the recent Trans-Pacific Partnership proposed by Washington.

Despite efforts to stabilize bilateral ties, the past few years have gone through ups and downs. This can be attributed to various reasons, including lack of mutual trust at the non-government level and the absence of a strategic basis for cooperation at present.

For instance, a CNN poll last year showed 58 percent American respondents saying China's economic power was more of a threat to than an opportunity for the US, jumping from about 35 percent in 2000.

Apart from the break caused by political upheaval between 1989 and 1992, China and the US have gone through two stages of extensive cooperation. The first one started in 1972, when former US president Richard Nixon made a historic visit to China, and lasted until 1989.

The second stage, from 1992 to 2009, saw the establishment of a strategic basis for cooperation, with China seeking to engage in US-led international institutions and Washington accepting Beijing as its important partner in the globalization process.

During this period, China became a member of the World Trade Organization (in 2001), too, which signified the peak moment in bilateral cooperation.

The Copenhagen climate change conference in 2009, however, served as a turning point in bilateral ties. The mainstream Western media accused China of "hijacking" the negotiations. In return, China criticized the developed countries for lack of action in fulfilling their commitment and expressed concern over the rich nations' containment strategy against it.

China, Brazil, South Africa and India, also known as BASIC, together with the Group of 77, opposed the attempts of the US-led group and European Union member states to impose binding conditions against developing nations in Copenhagen.

The West, led by the US, is visibly uncomfortable with China's increasing influence in the developing world. It sees China as a future superpower. Seen from their different responses to the global financial crisis, China and the US differ in their development models and understanding of the international trend, which undermines Sino-US ties, especially the US' faith in the previous strategic basis for cooperation.

Several elements will determine the trend of China-US ties. On one hand, facing domestic problems such as a high jobless rate, the US is using a strategic policy to ease its presence across the rest of the world, but it remains ambitious as far as the Asia-Pacific region is concerned. On the other, the gap in the economic strength between Beijing and Washington is narrowing: earlier this year, the Standard Chartered Bank forecast that China will surpass the US as the world's largest economy by 2020 when it is expected to have a GDP of $24.6 trillion compared with the US' $23.3 trillion.

Besides, China is likely to expedite the modernization of its armed forces, narrowing the gap with the US in hard power. Given the US' active participation in Asia-Pacific issues and China's growing strength, even a defensive move by one can be easily misinterpreted by the other as aggressive.

The US has maintained its hedging policy toward China. The US recognizes China as a strategic partner. But it also views China as its greatest rival and aims to inflate the cost of China's economic development, and uses its advantages in Internet technology to spread confusion in China's cyberspace.

These show the US' overreaction to its declining strength and China's rise, and its overreaction together with widespread nationalism in China can push bilateral ties toward a vicious circle.

We are about to enter the New Year with a gloomy forecast, and 2012 is election year for both countries which are likely to add uncertainty to bilateral ties. That apart, data show that China overtook the US as the world's top manufacturer in terms of output last year and other economic indicators will probably deal a further blow to the US in the coming years.

American people will thus have to greet the New Year worrying that their country will loose more coveted positions on the international stage, which will aggravate their already pessimistic views on their economy. US President Barack Obama has a close-to-zero chance of fulfilling his pledge of reindustrializing his country before his term ends, and the US is unlikely to clear the cloud that has gathered over its economy in the short term.

Therefore, the US' policy toward China is expected to undergo a psychological transition, from enjoying the upper hand to sliding into a disadvantageous position, which will affect Sino-US relations profoundly. Asia-Pacific issues, including the tension on the Korean Peninsula, the transfer of power in Taiwan and the South China Sea dispute, too, will pave a rocky path for Sino-US relations next year.

Even then, the so-called tragedy of power politics can be prevented. After all, China and the US both have exercised self-restraint to avoid a formal confrontation, and there exist favorable conditions for improvement of bilateral ties. China and the US can foster a win-win relationship by working on the strategic bases of cooperation, including meeting common challenges amid globalization.

More importantly, China and the US should change their policies toward each other considering the changing world. Both should renew their strategic orientation, set up a better multi-sector mechanism for controlling and resolving conflicts, and stabilize bilateral ties. And the leaders of both sides have to agree at all levels that cooperation instead of contention is the only way out for their countries.

The author is a professor and the vice-dean of the School of International Studies, Renmin University of China.

(China Daily 12/06/2011 page9)