Dancing the dance, and talking the talk

Updated: 2012-10-19 08:38

By Tan Yingzi in Washington (China Daily)

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As someone who has been a dedicated China watcher from Washington for about three decades, David Shambaugh has felt a growing sense of unease and anxiety about the Sino-US relationship in recent years.

Despite the fact that the two countries vowed to build a "positive, cooperative and comprehensive" relationship during President Hu Jintao's first state visit to the United States in January 2011, something has changed, and not for the better, Shimbaugh, a leading international authority on China, says in the new book Tangled Titans: The United States and China.

In the book, which he edited, he states that leaders in both countries should learn to manage competition and expand cooperation.

Dancing the dance, and talking the talk 

The two big powers are closely tied through extensive cooperation and growing competition. But the balance of cooperation and competition has changed.

"The competitive elements in the relationship are growing and now becoming primary, while the cooperative ones are secondary and declining," the George Washington University professor writes.

Shambaugh has visited China for 32 consecutive years. He spent 2009-10 on a sabbatical as a senior Fulbright scholar in China, but this research journey turned out to be an "unhappy" personal encounter with Chinese bureaucracy, he told China Daily during an exclusive interview at the Elliott School of International Affairs.

After he returned to Washington, his experience in China inspired him to explore the deeper dynamics of this relationship.

The book, which was published in August, includes essays from Shambaugh and 15 other scholars examining the bilateral ties in historical, theoretical, domestic, regional and global contexts.

"It's mainly a competitive relationship in all areas, economic, strategic, political, ideological, even cultural," he said. "So this is a new characteristic of the relationship, and we have to get used to the fact that we are going to get a tense relationship, we cannot continue to naively hope that the two sides will love each other and get along."

The past three-and-a-half years have witnessed an unprecedented number of high-level exchanges between Chinese and US officials, including 12 meetings between Hu and US President Barack Obama, the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogues, the Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade, and many military exchanges.

But despite all the communication and cooperation, strategic distrust is still growing, the number of trade disputes is increasing and more and more people in the US regard China as a competitor instead of a partner.

Shambaugh said neither country has experienced this situation before.

"We don't have experience managing the competitive relationship with deep interdependence. The good news is the interdependence will limit the competition from becoming conflictual," he said.

The only way out is "talk, talk and talk more" in order to gain a better understanding of each other, "because there is no alternative", he said.

According to Shambaugh, the competition is not just limited within the two countries because China is going global. China has increased its presence in the Asia-Pacific region, and it has invested heavily in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America in the areas of energy and natural resources.

As a newcomer to global expansion, China is not yet competitive in this regard with the US, the scholar said.

Currently there is some strategic competition in the Asia-Pacific region and economic and energy competition in the Middle East and Latin America, but the US is not deeply involved in Africa, he added.

"The US and China have a global relationship, but they are not yet competitive," he said. "The two are on the modern dance floor, dancing around each other, but they are not touching each other when dancing together, which means they are not cooperating. This is a kind of on awkward way to look at each other, and the Chinese side has been very careful not to step on American toes."

The only region Shambaugh is worried about is Latin America. In the traditional "backyard" of the US, China has been moving aggressively both commercially and militarily in recent years, and Washington is watching China's actions there very closely, he said.

Shambaugh gives Obama an A for his China policy during his first term.

"The only negative aspect is that his policy toward China was a little bit naive," he said. Because Obama seemed not to fully understand the complicated domestic politics in China, he had too many expectations for the US-China relationship.

"When China didn't step up and become the partner he wanted, he became a little bit disillusioned. For the last three years, we've seen a tougher, more pragmatic, more competitive policy toward China."

A recent PEW Research Center survey showed that 66 percent of the US public, and the majority of five expert groups (government, military retirees, business, scholars and media) said they see China as a competitor.

"China needs to prepare itself for a tougher US in the coming years," he said.

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