Daniel W. Drezner

Defining the Sino-American relationship

This weekend I had the pleasure of informally conversing with a Senator Who Shall Remain Nameless about certain matters of world politics, when he scared the living crap out of me.  We were talking about trying to define the dynamics of a rather nettlesome problem in world politics.  The good senator admitted that this was ...

This weekend I had the pleasure of informally conversing with a Senator Who Shall Remain Nameless about certain matters of world politics, when he scared the living crap out of me.  We were talking about trying to define the dynamics of a rather nettlesome problem in world politics.  The good senator admitted that this was a tough nut to crack… and then said, in essence, "this is one thing that academics like you need to do, to clarify how we should think about these issues."

It was at that point that I got very scared.  Any time politicians are looking to academics for insight, you know they’re pretty desperate. 

Whether it was just a clever deflection or not, however, I think the senator was right.  There are certain known arenas of world politics where practitioners are gonna do what they’re gonna do.  There are other areas, however, where the uncertainty is so high that the right concept at the right time really can shape the way the problem is handled. 

I bring this up because the upcoming Barack Obama-Xi Jinping summit suggests a possible moment where the right idea might matter. All the reports I have seen suggest that this summer is less about tangible deliverables and more about how to define the overall relationship between the two countries.  As I noted last week, it appears that the Chinese leadership has been casting about for new ways of thinking about the relationship as well.  As Jane Perlez reported, Xi seems eager to explore "a new type of great power relationship."  Not surprisingly, everyone inside and outside Washington has offered their two cents on the matter. 

I’m going to try to puzzle out how to define the relationship via the half-assed some blogging about it.  I’m going to start in this post by pointing out quite clearly what China is not.  Namely, China has not been a revisionist actor on the global stage.  In fact, over the past five years, they’ve been…. wait for it… a pretty responsible stakeholder. 

Now, longtime readers of this blog might be a bit shocked to read that last sentence.  I’ve posted a fair number of items pointing out the myriad ways in which China has rankled, annoyed, or truly pissed off other actors in the world — often ineptly.  With respect to its foreign economic policy, one could point to China’s multi-year project of keeping the yuan undervalued, its indigenous innovation project, and its periodic disruptions of rare earth exports as good examples.  On security, China’s actions in its neighborhood (South China Sea) or globally (intransigence on Syria) would seem to be at odds with the United States. 

That said, Iain Johnston made a very persuasive case in the pages of International Security a few months ago on how China’s post-2008 behavior hasn’t deviated that much from its pre-2008 behavior.  I don’t agree with his comments on the blogosphere — but I do agree with these two paragraphs: 

A common problem in the new assertiveness analyses is that they consider only confirming evidence while ignoring disconfirming examples. The risk here is exaggerating change and discounting continuity. The pundit and media world thus tended to miss a great deal of ongoing cooperative interaction between the United States and China throughout 2010. Examples include the continued growth of U.S. exports to China during the year; the continued high congruence in U.S. and Chinese voting in the UN Security Council; Chinese support for UN Security Council Resolution 1929, which imposed tougher sanctions on the Iranian regime—a move appreciated by the Obama administration; Beijing’s abiding by its 2009 agreement with the United States to hold talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama; a Chinese decision to continue the appreciation of the renminbi prior to the Group of Twenty meeting in Toronto in June 2010; Hu Jintao’s decision to attend the U.S.-hosted nuclear summit in April 2010 (in the wake of the January 2010 Taiwan arms sales decision, the Chinese had hinted that Hu would not attend the summit); a Chinese decision to pressure the Sudan government to exercise restraint should South Sudan declare independence; and China’s more constructive cross-strait policies, in the wake of Ma Ying-jeou’s 2008 election as president of the Republic of China, which have contributed to a decline in tensions between China and Taiwan, thus reducing the probability, for the moment, of a U.S. military conflict with the PRC.

In addition to these U.S.-specific cooperative actions, throughout 2010 China continued to participate in all of the major multilateral global and regional institutions in which it had been involved for the past couple of decades, including the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations Security Council, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Plus 3, the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement, UN peacekeeping operations, and antipiracy activities in the Gulf of Aden. There is no evidence that, beginning in 2010, it began to withdraw from global institutional life or to dramatically challenge the purposes, ideology, or main organizational features of these institutions to a degree that it had not in the past. Diplomacy in these institutions continued to show the expected mix of focused pursuit of status and material interest, defense of sovereignty, and functional cooperation that has characterized China’s approach to these institutions over the past couple of decades.

I’d put it even more strongly.  Since 2008, China has had multiple opportunities to disrupt the U.S.-created international order, and Beijing has passed on almost all of these opportunities. 

Johnston’s focus was on 2010, but one could argue that events since then further buttress his argument.  China continued to allow the renminbi to appreciate and continued to demonstrate compliance with its WTO obligations.   As Perlez noted in her story last week, the Chinese have taken significant steps to signal their displeasure with North Korea.  Last week Chinese premier Li Keqiang gave a speech that kinda sounded like the death knell for any loose talk about a Beijing Consensus.  Even on international issues where China has appeared to be willfully obstinate — the law of the sea, climate change, cyberattacks — there has been at least some positive movement in recent months/weeks/days. 

Now, let’s be clear — China is doing almost all of this to advance its own narrow self-interest.   None of the above means that China is suddenly going to embrace the U.S. perspective on human rights or the South China Sea.  Still, there are a healthy number of issue areas where China’s interests are pretty congruent with the United States, and where China has taken constructive policy steps. 

My main point here is that China is a great power that is inevitably going to disagree with the United States on a host of issues.  China is not, however, a revisionist actor hell-bent on subverting the post-1945/post-1989 global governance.  To use John Ikenberry’s language, recent Sino-American disputes are taking place within the context of the current international order.  They are not about radical changes to that international order.  Indeed, contrary to the arguments of  some, the current system has displayed surprising resilience. 

So, going into this summit, I do hope that the Obama administration recognizes that China thinks that they’ve been a constructive actor in maintaining global order — and, in a lot of ways, this is more than just boilerplate.  A failure to acknowledge this really will create, as the Chinese are fond of saying, "hurt feelings" in California — and only exacerbate a more malevolent worldview in Beijing. 

Acknowledging China’s constructive role does not mean that Obama should keep its mouth shut on areas of disagreement, or that the relationship doesn’t need to rest on firmer ground.  But as a first principle, it’s worth remembering that China’s rise is not an existential threat.

Am I missing anything? 

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