The Price of Mistrust
The U.S.-China relationship is marked by a quiet but destabilizing narrative. That's why it's so important that the two countries keep talking.
There is a predisposition in the public debate about the U.S.-China relationship, on both sides of the Pacific, to believe that the two countries are now locked into some sort of irreversible and increasingly fractious zero-sum game. China’s gain by definition means America’s loss — or so the thinking goes — just as a U.S. advance is seen as portending a consequential Chinese retreat.
The most recent manifestation of this phenomenon is the heated analysis over China’s inclusion in or exclusion from the 2016 Rim of the Pacific military exercise (RIMPAC), which involves units from 21 other Pacific countries and which the United States leads. The context for this debate is China’s land reclamation program in the South China Sea in support of its territorial claims, and whether China’s inclusion in RIMPAC would be seen as simply sanctioning such actions.
The truth is, the political machinery of the China-U.S. relationship — anchored in regular, working-level summitry between the two presidents and supported by the framework of the high-level meetings of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue and its subsidiary policy working groups — is functioning reasonably effectively.
Previously, both sides managed the relationship through a series of ad hoc side meetings at the margins of international forums — like the U.N. General Assembly, G20 summits, or Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings — where the issues of the conference, or the particular political dramas of the day, tended to dominate. The crucial addition to this machinery, which Obama introduced within months of Xi assuming the presidency in 2013, is working-level summits, which cover both the most difficult and the more routine aspects of the relationship. This began with Sunnylands in June 2013, when the two leaders met for two days in a relatively casual setting. And it will continue in September, when Xi arrives in Washington, D.C., for a state visit that will also be a working summit.
Whoever becomes the next U.S. president, whatever their views on China may be, should ensure that they can sustain this machinery, through good seasons and bad. The central strategic significance of the U.S.-China relationship should not be held hostage to the topic du jour, or even the crisis of the day.
In great power relations, boring is usually good. We should never forget the Confucian curse of legend: “May you live in interesting times!”
Lest I be accused of having a Pollyannaish view of the difficulties facing the future of U.S.-China relations, there is a long list of disagreements capable of derailing the relationship. These include Taiwan in all its contemporary dimensions, including the future of U.S. arms sales to the self-governing island. They include the future management of territorial and other political disputes with Japan, one of America’s closest allies. And they include tensions over the North Korean nuclear weapons program and the possibility of a collision between Chinese and foreign naval and air assets causing an international incident or crisis. Then there is the smorgasbord of complexity concerning conflicting claims in the South China Sea, including Chinese land reclamation efforts, at a time of closer U.S. strategic engagement with most of the Southeast Asian claimant states.
We can recite the profound challenges to the relationship, which are legion, and throw our hands in the air, predicting gloom, doom, and general despair. Or we can do something about managing them, and even, God forbid, work toward resolving some of them.
Professional pessimism about the U.S.-China relationship, or indeed about China itself, may be intellectually satisfying. But it does little to advance the practical diplomacy necessary in managing a relationship so fundamental to the great issues of our time: how to preserve peace and maintain stability, thereby providing the foundations for long-term economic prosperity and environmental sustainability for all — but in a manner that is sufficiently mindful of U.S. and Chinese interests and values. This is far preferable than allowing strategic drift to set in — which may have a long-term trajectory of crisis, conflict, or even war.
And while doubting the strength and longevity of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may be intellectually satisfying for some, a more cautious and evidence-based view is that the CCP is likely to endure for the long-term, not least because no alternatives are on offer. The Chinese economic model — and its underpinning political economy — is sustainable for the foreseeable future: Average annual growth will likely remain north of 6 percent for the next decade.
I therefore reject the latest fashion statement in American sinology — the economic collapse of China preceding its political implosion — as argued in early March by George Washington University’s David Shambaugh, an infinitely qualified sinologist with publications of the highest quality. But on this occasion, his conclusions defy the evidence and are just plain wrong. Furthermore, whatever reservations we may have about the Chinese political system, any policy predicated on an analytical assumption of Chinese collapse is dangerous: a triumph of aspiration and hope over analytical rigor and hard policy choices.
Many in China already believe that U.S. policy is, in fact, to weaken China from within and to constrain Beijing’s options abroad. Xi’s China has deep reservations about the long-term strategic intentions of the United States towards their country. Beijing does not believe the United States will happily surrender its current dominant position in the regional and global order and therefore concludes that Washington is actively pursuing a policy of containment to deny China international policy space. Chinese hardliners also conclude that this policy of containment abroad is matched by a parallel U.S. policy of undermining the legitimacy of the CCP at home.
This deeply realist conclusion in Beijing about U.S. policy is matched by Washington’s conclusions about China’s operational strategy in the region and the world. The United States concludes that China is actively pursuing a policy based on Xi’s statement that the people of Asia should manage Asian security. Washington also concludes that this, by definition, is designed to exclude the United States and that the objective of Chinese operational strategy is to push the United States out of the security architecture of the region, to be replaced with a Chinese sphere of influence across East Asia.
But, the prospect of armed conflict between China and the United States for the decade ahead remains remote. It is in neither country’s interests for this to occur. For China it would derail the core mission of realizing the transformation of its economy, for which it needs sustained strategic stability. Furthermore, Chinese strategic planners have concluded that U.S. military predominance, both regionally and globally, will continue for the foreseeable future.
But China will seek to expand its political and diplomatic influence across Asia, primarily through its formidable economic presence. There is already evidence of this through the dominance of Chinese trade, and soon investment flows, across the region — which the recently announced Chinese-led institutions, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Silk Road Fund, will likely enhance. Beyond Asia, China will also become increasingly active in the future reform of the global order. There is no evidence that Beijing has any intentions of fully revising, let alone replacing, institutions like the United Nations, which have served China’s interests well. Instead, China is likely to seek a stronger voice in the various ongoing reform processes of the system, and within each of the institutions, under the overall Chinese rubric of “greater multipolarity” and a “more democratic order” — as opposed to what China sees as an order based on the continuing assumption of the singularity of unilateral American power.
Xi is significantly different from his predecessors. He wields more power individually than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. He has a clear political vision for the country: his “China Dream” has as its end point a “strong and powerful” Chinese state. He has ended former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy orthodoxy over the past 35 years of “hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead,” in favor of a more vigorous, activist, and assertive international policy to advance Chinese interests both in the region and beyond. He speaks of a “new type of great power relations,” a “new type of international relations,” and “great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics.” Xi identifies a period of “extended strategic opportunity” for China’s rise, during which he wants to preserve the peace in order to focus on the completion of China’s economic transformation. He sees the strength of the Chinese economy in a growth-challenged world as China’s principal vehicle for extending its international influence.
Given these significant emerging divergences in Chinese and American views of the existing regional and global order, is a common strategic narrative between the two possible? Yes — within the framework of what I call constructive realism, common purpose. “Realism” refers to those fundamental policy disagreements between the United States and China — like arms sales to Taiwan — which cannot be resolved in the foreseeable future but which should be managed within a general protocol of not allowing any of these disagreements to destroy the relationship.
“Constructive” refers to the much longer list of policy areas — like the proposed bilateral investment treaty; expanded cooperation in strengthening the region’s thin security architecture to help manage regional tensions; and expanding the November 2014 agreement on climate change — where the two sides can make progress. These and other bilateral, regional, and global cooperation projects, build step-by-step political capital, diplomatic ballast, and strategic trust to help resolve some of the more intractable realist challenges.
As for “common purpose,” that entails building a stronger, sustainable international order that maximizes the provision of global public goods against the mounting number of global threats to the order itself — including global terrorism, cyberthreats, pandemics, and climate change.
A collective organizing principle, or common strategic narrative, for the overall relationship is now necessary. At present we don’t have one. What we have instead is a silent strategic narrative against each other. A common strategic narrative that is capable of embracing both fundamental disagreements and substantive cooperation within the same overall framework — rather than having the latter permanently hostage to the resolution of the former — is needed.
These, of course, are only recommendations. The utility of such an approach is a matter for the governments themselves. Which makes the ongoing utility of regular, working-level summitry all the more important for the long-term prospects of this relationship. After all, what happens between the United States and China affects the rest of the world as well.
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