Of the more than 60 dialogue mechanisms between Beijing and Washington, the annual China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue tops in terms of the rank of participating officials, the involvement of government departments, and the coverage of topics for discussion. As can be seen from the outcomes from previous dialogues, this platform has come to be exploited by the two parties to answer, through confirmation of the various deals and intentions on specific economic issues they have reached in normal days, what their respective societies have been waiting for. Endorsement of projects and indication of future direction of further consultations are crucial. It spurs action at the grassroots level.
This year’s Dialogue is taking place against the background of a string of geostrategic developments in across the Pacific region and beyond. As such, how to manage differences stands out as a more pressing task than before.
For three years in the running, this author has participated in an informal forum of Chinese and US scholars. The platform is meant to provide intellectual input to the Sino-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue mechanism. At this year’s exercise in early April, I was particularly struck by comments made by a US banker: When President Richard Nixon visited China 40 years ago, China had virtually no role to play in the development of the US economy. Still, Nixon made the trip, out of strategic considerations.
My take of what this banker was trying to say is that China has now gained quite some weight in the everyday evolution of the U.S. economy as well as its future development, but the US has yet to see its strategic goals met. The implied message is not so subtle: the time for China to attend to US concerns in some strategic fields is now.
In China, too, there has grown a similar dichotomy in thinking about how broad rationales in relating to the United States. Economically speaking, the two countries have become inseparable from each other, both at present and in the future. From a strategic perspective, it is the US that should take China’s concerns into due account.
What are the issues, then, that keep China and the United States apart in strategic fields?
Strategic issues can be conceptual and/or factual. The need to address them can be urgent and/or complacent. Identification of what constitutes a strategic matter hinges upon the standpoint from which researchers and decision-makers see the world around them. An issue of strategic concern to one party may not necessarily be one of the same level of importance to the other party. Just to agree on an issue of mutual concern, before commitment to addressing it, has to result from a process of feeling each other out. It is only too natural for the two partiesto agree to have settled one issue before another one emerges.
From a macro viewpoint, what underpins differences in Chinese and American geostrategic thinking is the question whether or not the strengthening of a nation’s power inevitably leads into practices of hegemony.
U.S. scholars’ analyses of global and regional security trends are profoundly conditioned by their observation and interpretation of lessons to draw from how first Germany and Britain and then Japan and the United States related to each other in the early 20th century. To US scholars, preventing today’s China from becoming either the Germany or Japan of the early 20th Century – the status quo power today being the United States alone – is a clear and present strategic imperative to pursue. Hence, U.S. foreign policy scholars and policymakers habitually speak about the need to ‘integrate China into the existing international system.’ Related to this line of thinking, how China interacts with a third country naturally is a matter of concern to protecting the security of the United States.
In contrast, Chinese scholars of international security have not developed an overall strategic thinking as clear as that cherished by their US counterparts. Apart from topics concerning autonomy in choosing a political system, social stability, and territorial integrity – such as those involving Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang and territorial waters, it is hard to find other fields where China must respond to those U.S. behaviours found to be objectionable. Among serious Chinese scholars, few have ever come up with a call for China to shape the future trajectory of either domestic development or diplomacy of the United States. Instead, a shared consensus is that the United States is the first party for China to pursue peaceful co-existence with, in the whole world.
Since 2010, the year when some US officials declared a shift its strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific region, anxiety in China over the strategic intentions of the United States has been on the rise. A growing number of scholars have come to talk about ‘strategic distrust’ between the two countries. Different from ‘deficit in mutual trust,’ the notion of distrust implies a purposeful choice of guarding against each other, in handling both bilateral interactions and in dealing with a third party. When ‘strategic distrust’ is taken as a given way of life, there grows a willing choice of rejecting whatever request or suggestion comes from the other side, even in domestic affairs. And that is not a healthy trend to contemplate.
As a matter of fact, China and the United States have a long history of not seeing eye-to-eye in relating to each other. The difference is that today elites in academia and the media highlight those differences more prominently. Were it not for the financial problems in the United States that started in 2008, those elites in the United States would not have come to accept the notion about fragility of the state of affairs America is going through. Furthermore, if without the sovereign debt challenge a few European countries are going through, Chinese elites would have never grown so confident and optimistic about the development momentum of their country. This is true in spite of the numerous challenges so obvious in China’s own development.
The prevailing sense of fragility has spurred among American foreign policy elites to promote a notion that the United States ought not willingly give up a fight with China for preeminence. It is possible to discern a “no regrets” logic in U.S. foreign policy moves in the past year, from Burma to the South China Sea. Self-confidence, meanwhile, leads Chinese elites to champion the notion that China has had enough of unfriendly US behaviors and, as such, China must take actions to ensure that the United States not realize its ultra-motives in China’s neighborhood. The result? Both China and the United States perceive themselves as big powers. What they have not realized, however, is that they have been actually serving, unknowingly, some interest groups in third-party countries, even though they are comparatively weaker in strength. In other words, there has been a multiplication of the sources of Sino-US disagreements and disputes.
What is the bottom line in strategic interactions between China and the United States? Avoidance of direct military conflict has been the most prominent feature in bilateral interactions for much of the contemporary history. That will continue to be so, regardless of how scholars identify the current state of their relations: trust or distrust. The bottom line of no direct military conflict is iron-clod, because it is deeply rooted in the societies of both China and the United States.
Meanwhile, any country, including big powers, have only their own domestic political cohesion and rationalization of endowments for growth to rely on, in order to weather through temporal challenges in their respective paths of development. At present, it is instructive for us to take wisdom from an old Chinese saying: one should have no jubilation from others’ pains and no self-defeat upon personal loss. We need to give more weight to calling a spade a spade when it comes to specific issues and resist the temptation of over-interpretation of ‘strategic motives’ in American policy articulations or behaviors.
As for the ‘third-country factor’ cropping up in the course of evolution of Sino-US relations, we need to keep in mind one simple fact: the country in question also deals with numerous other countries across the globe. It is unwise, therefore, to overestimate the influences from either China or the United States on a particular country. China will just have keep working towards an amicable relationship with its neighboring states. This geographical dictate is the most significant factor that separates China from the United States when it comes to foreign policy choices.
In viewing the 4th Round of China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue, therefore, it is of particular importance for us to deal with the head-line issues in the west Pacific region in a calm and cool manner. As long as we confine our interactions with the United States by zero-focusing on what is conducive to our domestic economic and societal developments, it will not be difficult to manage differences between the two of us.
Zha Daojiong is Professor of School of International Studies, Peking University.