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Pessimism and Optimism in Assessing China-US Relations

Wang Jisi
April 16, 2012
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In a recent study co-authored by Dr. Kenneth Lieberthal and myself,  we describe the apparently deepening strategic distrust between China and the United States and render policy recommendations that may facilitate greater mutual understanding and cooperation between the two countries. The study has aroused a great deal of interest among Chinese and American officials and policy analysts who are concerned about the relationship. One frequently asked question is: given the degree of the mutual distrust and the difficulty in reducing it, are the two countries heading for a long-term strategic rivalry and confrontation?
 
I see strong reasons for both pessimism and optimism with regard to this question, depending on one’s perspective and psychology. 
 
The pessimists about China-U.S. relations often refer to three points to support their assessment. First, China and the United States, with their vastly different political systems, values, interests, and experiences, will never trust each other’s long-term intentions, as our study seems to prove. Rising nationalism in both societies, especially in China, tends to reinforce their mutual distrust, which will eventually lead to an adversarial relationship. 
 
Second, the strategic competition between China and the U.S. has become more structural and acute in recent years. Most prominently, as some argue, the U.S. military will not give up its dominating position in the western Pacific, whereas the Chinese military is determined to develop capabilities to challenge the U.S. military primacy. This competition and the resulting arms race, unlike economic competition, can never be a zero-plus game.
 
Third, most Chinese and American observers have noted that the power gap between the two countries is being narrowed quickly. Before long, China’s overall economic size will bypass that of the United States. With its economic expansion, China’s international space and military prowess are also certain to grow. As an English saying has it, “one nation can’t have two queens.” The Chinese suspect that the Americans will make every effort possible to prevent China from replacing the United States as the strongest global power. On the U.S. side, it is feared that China does have such ambitions and therefore attempts to undermine U.S. influences on the global stage. The pessimists thus predict that these two countries will seek their own alignments in the world against each other, and that the basic pressures of the international system will in turn force the two countries into conflict.
 
Meanwhile, the optimists can also provide at least three reasons to make their case. First, despite their political disparities, China and the United States are increasingly interdependent in terms of trade, finance, education, and humanity exchanges. Both Beijing and Washington have to focus on their domestic priorities. The U.S. is preoccupied with economic recovery, job creation, and budgetary balance, which depends to a larger degree on export, foreign investment, and financial cooperation with countries like China. On the part of China, it is faced with daunting tasks of changing its pattern of economic development, improving social welfare, and strengthening political stability. A strategic rivalry between these two giants could only obstruct their respective domestic priorities, not facilitating them.
 
Second, although it is true that the militaries of the two countries are making war preparations, which they are supposed to do, the two great powers simply cannot afford a major military conflict between them. In the last decade or so, the Chinese and American navies and air forces have had some unexpected encounters, most saliently the EP-3 incident in 2001 when a Chinese air fighter collided with an American spy plane. A military accident may lead to a political and diplomatic crisis, and military buildups may lead to undesirable consequences. In due course, however, Chinese and American military and political leaders will have to find a solution to their contradicting aspirations and avoid a catastrophic war.
 
Third, the “iron logic of power” in world politics does not really apply to China and the United States. Even when China’s economy is larger in GDP terms, it is still a poor country as compared to America and other developed economies in terms of per capita income. An aging population and a deteriorating ecological environment, among other bottlenecks, are constraining China’s economic growth. This may not sound good news for China’s long-term development but serves to remind us how difficult it is for China to become a “superpower” at par with the United States. In any foreseeable future, no Chinese leadership would have the aspiration or capability to lead an anti-U.S. alliance in global affairs. Nor would the United States be able to mobilize an anti-China bloc. 
 
Each of the six arguments listed above is compelling in its own way, and there can be many other assumptions that will vigorously shore up either the pessimist or the optimist school of thinking. So what should one make from all this?
 
I call myself a “cautiously optimistic realist” on this question. My realism rests in the realization that the China-U.S. mutual distrust is not only real but also structural and deep-rooted in each country’s politics, and that this distrust, if not properly addressed, will result in grave consequences in their bilateral relationship and global affairs. But realism is not fatalism. If the Chinese and U.S. governments work together to broaden common interests and enhance cooperation, as they declare that they will continue to do, and if concerned Chinese and American public citizens, corporations, and NGOs participate in making these efforts, the fatal human error of making the two nations adversaries can be avoided.
 
Ultimately, my optimism lies in the common definition of pessimism and optimism. Nobody, not even the so-called “hardliners” who view a China-U.S. antagonism as inevitable, would define “optimism” as expecting deterioration of the China-U.S. relationship, or “pessimism” as prospective improvement of the relationship. As long as this shared value judgment remains intact, we should safely advocate the betterment of this most important bilateral relationship in the world today.
 
 
Wang Jisi is dean of the School of International Studies, Peking University.

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