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Foreign Policy

An Emerging U.S.-China Dual Leadership in Asia-Pacific

May 08 , 2017

The first meeting between Chinese President Xi Jingping and U.S. President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago, has sent two important messages to the world: first, the two most powerful and biggest economies of the world will manage their relationship under a principle so-called “Agreement to Disagreement” which is that they are determined to work out their differences in areas such as trade deficit and “currency manupulation,” among others. Second, the two powers will cooperate beyond the bilateral relations and try to cooperate on other critical global and regional issues such as the North Korea nuclear crisis, anti-terrorism etc... Former U.S. President George W. Bush said, after his first eye-to-eye meeting with the Russian President Vladimir Putin, that he thought Putin was a trustworthy partner with whom he could work with. Regardless of whether Mr. Bush's comments were correct or not, it revealed how critical it is to world leaders to meet and have eye-to-eye experiences. This kind of summit diplomacy is one of the best ways for the world leaders to build trustful relationships, or at least to better understand one another. Given the fact that the two top leaders will have overlapping time served as incumbents for at least the next four years, there is no doubt that the foundation has been laid from this first meeting, and will have a lasting influence on U.S.-China relations for years to come.

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(Photo: CNN Money)

It is of course not enough for the two leaders to establish a good working relationship. Since the 2008 global financial crisis, China and the U.S. have entered into a new structure, namely an emerging dual leadership structure, in the Asia-Pacific. This trend represents the future direction of U.S.-China relations. China, as a rising power, has begun to play a leadership role in both the economic and financial domains, which can be seen in the most recent development of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and its “One-Belt, One-Road” initiative. Meanwhile, the existing hegemon plays a leadership role in the security and political dimensions. It remains to be seen whether the U.S. and China will extend this dual leadership structure into regional as well as global institutions.  

Uncertainties about Order

There are some inherent risks involved in these new developments.  The emerging nature of this new type of relationship means that the transitional process is still going on and the situation has not yet stabilized.  The fact that it is a dual-power structure, with both sides having sometimes different viewpoints and opinions on what should be done, also adds to this uncertainty.  The dual leadership structure reflects recent trends and perceptions regarding China’s rise – namely China’s dramatic and persistent economic growth (despite its recent slowdown), which, in turn, may momentously affect the global and regional power distribution, giving Beijing considerable new leverage relative to the one exercised by Washington.  For example, China’s increasing economic strength helped to maintain economic stability in East Asia when the 2008 Global Financial Crisis weakened the United States.  At the same time, the continued U.S. leadership in military and political dimensions may prove to play a balancing role vis-à-vis China’s rising influence in Asia and constitute a hindrance to Beijing’s leadership in the East Asia region.

No Bipolar or G2 Structure Will Emerge

Some realists may see a bipolar U.S.-China structure or balance. However, the dual leadership structure is distinct from this concept because it reflects a fundamental asymmetry rather than parity.  China has not moved into a position where it can challenge U.S. leadership.  Rather, China is merely starting to become more influential in the economic dimension. While this trend may eventually enhance Beijing’s power in the military and political aspects, the transition from economic to political influence will occur over a long period and is difficult to measure. Therefore, it is unlikely that China will replace U.S. leadership in either the security or political domains, not only in global affairs but even in regional affairs, any time soon.

Furthermore, while the dual leadership structure may appear similar to the “G2” and other shared leadership concepts, they are conceptually and empirically different.  Zbigniew Brzezinski in 2009 argued strongly for the G2 model, suggesting that “the relationship between the US and China has to be truly a comprehensive global partnership, parallel [to] relations with Europe and Japan.” In contrast, the dual leadership concept only refers to a newly emerged regional structure in East Asia and emphasizes the distinct strengths of the U.S. and China in separate dimensions, especially economic versus security. In a global sense, it is still an asymmetrical structure – that is, the U.S. remains the sole hegemon, and China is far from replacing it.

This dual-leadership has proven positive so far, with benefits for both the U.S. and China. Examples of these advantages include U.S.-China cooperation in dealing with such global issues as climate change, anti-terrorism, preventing the next financial crisis, as well as the North Korean nuclear crisis, among others. However, it remains to be seen whether the two powers can coordinate well with other powers in the region, such as Japan.

This dual leadership structure can also be analyzed from the following two perspectives. One way to examine the issue is regarding perceptions. We do see that the gap between the U.S. and China in many dimensions is narrowing, such as in overall GDP, with many projecting that the latter will surpass the former sooner or later. In sum, as China’s global influence and soft power continue to rise, as well as its overall GDP, the perception may be that China is moving up while America is moving down. Another angle from which the dual leadership structure can be seen is that China may become a global superpower in particular dimensions, such as economic, but it is unlikely for China to become the leading power militarily and politically.  In fact, the dual leadership concept is double-edged.  It not only emphasizes China’s rise and its implications but the strength and persistence of U.S. leadership.  Despite the origins of the global financial crisis being in Wall Street, and the loss of American credibility in Afghanistan and Iraq, there have been no serious challenges to U.S. hard and soft power in the world.  That is why we are witnessing the interesting phenomenon of China’s continuing economic momentum through three decades, while the U.S. continues to hold the leading military and political position.  The region and the world are therefore at a compelling historic moment that should be addressed with further empirical data and theoretical constructs. 

Containment vs. Engagement

Looking forward, there are at least two important questions which relate to the reactions of key players to the dual leadership structure. The first question is whether the U.S. would accept a dual leadership structure in East Asia. Needless to say, there is a constant chorus of opposing voices in the U.S. arguing about how to deal with the rise of China.  A classic example is a debate between advocates of containment policy versus engagement plan.  It seems to this author that the majority view among the American elite and policymakers is that the U.S. should do its utmost to bring China into existing international political and economic systems, making China an insider rather than a challenger. In this way, China and the U.S. would not only avoid a incredibly undesirable fatal military confrontation potentially arising of the disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea, but also achieving a win-win cooperation in dealing with regional and global issues, such as a nuclear North Korea, anti-terrorism, as well as global environmental challenges. 

Other Regional Players

The second important question is regarding the reaction of existing players to a dual leadership structure, such as Japan, Russia, India, and the both Koreas.  One may also pay attention to the question of how we should treat the existing multilateral institutional arrangements such as ASEAN + 3, the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the East Asia Summit, among others. It is true that China’s Asian neighbors have some concerns about the rise of China, particularly in the security dimension. Much of this has to do with severe conflicts and territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.  But at the same time, China has made major progress in the past decade in the region, establishing close economic ties with virtually every neighboring country as well as initiating financial institutions such as the AIIB.  The positive manifestation of increasing Chinese influence in the economic dimension became particularly apparent in the U.S. financial crisis of 2008, when China’s record-high economic growth offset the U.S.’s negative growth, thereby playing a stabilizing and beneficial economic role for ASEAN countries. On the other hand, it is still unclear in the foreseeable future whether or how China will play a leadership role for Regional Compressive Economic Partnership (RCEP), now that the Trump Administration has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Future Balance of Power

Several uncertain factors will affect the future balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region.  China’s rapid economic growth, which has been the impetus for the regional power shift, is still uncertain, with some predicting the coming collapse of the Chinese economic bubble, whereas others believe in the sustainability of Chinese economic growth for the decades to come.  The U.S. position in Asia also remains uncertain, depending on the continued economic recovery, and a strong commitment to the U.S. rebalancing towards Asia.  If these Chinese and U.S. factors continue to strengthen, then the likelihood of a dual leadership system is sustainable.  However, if either the U.S. or China suffers a future economic downturn, or if the U.S. is unable to follow through on its rebalancing, then it will lead to a further uncertainty of a dual-leadership apparatus.  Whatever the case, the uncertain nature of U.S.-China relations will have an enormous impact on the region as well as the globe for years to come.

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