Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

America is muddling through middling relationship with the Middle Kingdom

By Peter Bacon Best Defense Academy of Frenemy-American Relations At SAIS the other day, the Kettering Foundation and the Institute for American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) held a high-powered conference on the future of U.S.-China relations, featuring pretty much all the big names in the China racket. If you weren’t ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

By Peter Bacon
Best Defense Academy of Frenemy-American Relations

At SAIS the other day, the Kettering Foundation and the Institute for American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) held a high-powered conference on the future of U.S.-China relations, featuring pretty much all the big names in the China racket. If you weren't selected to be one of the illuminati, here is what you missed:

--Professor David Lampton of SAIS summed up the conference's assessment of Sino-American relationship as "not in the best of times, but not in the worst of times." Both Professor Lampton and Rear Admiral Eric McVadon both identified believe that the relationship has evolved over the past decades from a one-dimensional, anti-Soviet Cold War partnership to a "three-legged stool," of security, economic, and culture relations. Elites within both countries bolstered this relationship: Tao Wenzhao, a senior fellow at CASS, argued that the recent meetings between elites such as Hu Jintao and President Obama, and between Joe Biden and Hu's putative successor Xi Jinping augured well for future Sino-American relations. Indeed, Wenzhao remarked that one Chinese official observed that "Mr. Jinping [had] never spent so much time with a foreign guest" as he did with Biden. The conference's keynote speaker, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, similarly identified the Hu-Obama communiqué issued during the two leaders' meeting as "a real blueprint of strategic objectives shared and 34 tangible paragraphs elaborating on them and tasks ahead for the relationship."

By Peter Bacon
Best Defense Academy of Frenemy-American Relations

At SAIS the other day, the Kettering Foundation and the Institute for American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) held a high-powered conference on the future of U.S.-China relations, featuring pretty much all the big names in the China racket. If you weren’t selected to be one of the illuminati, here is what you missed:

–Professor David Lampton of SAIS summed up the conference’s assessment of Sino-American relationship as “not in the best of times, but not in the worst of times.” Both Professor Lampton and Rear Admiral Eric McVadon both identified believe that the relationship has evolved over the past decades from a one-dimensional, anti-Soviet Cold War partnership to a “three-legged stool,” of security, economic, and culture relations. Elites within both countries bolstered this relationship: Tao Wenzhao, a senior fellow at CASS, argued that the recent meetings between elites such as Hu Jintao and President Obama, and between Joe Biden and Hu’s putative successor Xi Jinping augured well for future Sino-American relations. Indeed, Wenzhao remarked that one Chinese official observed that “Mr. Jinping [had] never spent so much time with a foreign guest” as he did with Biden. The conference’s keynote speaker, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, similarly identified the Hu-Obama communiqué issued during the two leaders’ meeting as “a real blueprint of strategic objectives shared and 34 tangible paragraphs elaborating on them and tasks ahead for the relationship.”

–The panelists overall still felt quite uneasy about the future of the Sino-American relationship. Stephen Orlins, President of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, memorably remarked on his experience on Chinese television when he was asked by a Chinese audience member “why every U.S. policy was designed to oppose China’s rise.” Tellingly, Orlins continued, “everyone in the audience [stood] up and [started] to applaud.” Brzezinski, similarly, wondered whether the anti-China rhetoric from the field of Republican candidates could engender “a more Manichean vision of the world” within the American government. Panelists on public perceptions of the United States and China confirmed this: Yuan Zheng, a Senior Fellow from CASS, found in studies from 2008 to 2010 that “ordinary Chinese have mixed feelings towards the US, just as [ordinary Americans] with China.” Indeed, he continued, “56 percent of those Chinese surveyed felt that American policy was two-sided, geared towards ‘cooperation and containment.'” Andrew Kohut, President of the Pew Research Center, also pointed out that 58 percent of Americans felt that the United States needed to get tougher with China on trade, while 56 percent of Americans simultaneously felt that the United States and China needed to build better relations.

–Panelists and speakers at the conference argued that these ambivalent tensions necessitated a global condominium between America and China, or, in the words of Brzezinski, “to act towards each other as though we were part of a G-2 without proclaiming ourselves to be a G-2.” This “basic generalization” of Brzezinski followed on statements made by other speakers such as David Lampton and Tom Fingar of Stanford University who both argued that without Sino-American cooperation and leadership, problems of international economic management, collective security, or climate change would not be dealt with. Fingar further argued that each power needed to pursue this cooperative partnership even if we had not reached a state of mutual trust between the two powers. The “very real, very now” nature of issues such as climate change and its impact on national security and ever-changing threats to global security necessitated a partnership even as publics and elites remained distrustful of each other.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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