The sixth round of the China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) and the fifth round of the China-US High-Level Consultation on People-to-People Exchange (CPE) have both just ended in Beijing. The latest round of talks have boosted existing cooperation and promised to promote more economic, security and cultural cooperation.
The ideal outcome of these meetings would be a constructive and stable relationship between Beijing and Washington, and a smooth transition of regional and world politics and economics.
Globalization has caused a sea change in international relations. Ideological competition between nations, based on various versions of Unitarianism and as well as competition and conflicts, is making space for cooperation on a global scale.
Rather than turning America into a country led by proletarians, China has instead promised to respect the American way of life, based on its historical and cultural traditions. Similarly, America has worked with China on increasing investment, outsourcing, and two-way trade, thereby expanding the common ground of the partnership. Instead of President Obama’s pledge to “contain communism” in his two presidential inaugural speeches, Secretary of State John Kerry has repeatedly assured China that the US “doesn’t intend to contain China.” The US realizes that China’s own strategy of modernization has brought more public goods to its own people and beyond, than the US can.
Obviously, China is catching up rather rapidly. From 2000-2013, China’s GDP narrowed from 1/9th of the United States’ GDP to over 1/2. In the meantime, China has narrowed its defense spending from 1/18th of the United States’ defense budget to over 1/4. These figures don’t fundamentally change the status quo, as America is still the aggregate leader, as well as by per capita. However, what if China could catch up with the US, especially as America spreads itself thin globally? In 2012, the National Intelligence Council predicted in its report, 2030 Global Trends, that the US would no longer be the sole superpower in 2030, and the World Bank recently predicted that China’s economic scale would surpass that of the US in 2014, according to the measurement of purchasing power parity (PPP). Though the PPP standard and calculation may be controversial, China may still become the largest economy in the world by 2030, even with its official exchange rate.
America is pondering what China’s discourse of a “great restoration” might mean. While the US has claimed that it welcomes China’s rise, it would not want to lose its status as a superpower as an outcome of China’s rise. If China becomes the next largest economy in the world, it may not bode well for the order of Pax Americana. Therefore, Washington is seriously concerned about the economic and strategic implication of China’s rise, even if the rise is peaceful.
On the one hand, China has always aspired to be rich and strong. On the other, it is possible to make this a peaceful transition, as long as both the US and China follow established international laws and norms, and genuinely partner to meet future global challenges. Although the US has not relinquished its desire to convert China, it is unlikely that it will use military means to achieve its goal. Luckily, China has transformed its ideology and no longer aspires to transform other countries, unless mandated by the United Nations. This has lowered the chances that Beijing and Washington will end up in an adversarial competition for the sake of ideology.
Even better, China and the US have developed a mode of major-country engagement, by launching and sustaining the S&ED and CPE. This has transformed the previous model of a US-USSR détente through strategic arms limitation talks. At the strategic arms level, China and the US are barely comparable. China doesn’t seek equality, despite its economic rise. However, China has to continue to develop its economy, as its per capita GDP is still only a quarter of the US’. Therefore, China will continue to seek economic growth.
Both Beijing and Washington have to understand the rationale of China’s development – it is not intended to challenge the US, even though China’s success would empower itself. Given this, America has to welcome China’s peaceful rise, and assure China that it will honor its promise. Meanwhile, China needs to assure America that it will rise peacefully, given the costs and drawbacks of conflict.
Honestly speaking, without the S&ED and CPE, China and the US would still be able to cooperate, as desired by their citizens and nations. However, these platforms provide an opportunity for high-level annual institutional dialogue, inferior only to summits, for frank and substantial exchange and deliberation. At each of these forums, the two countries are able to efficiently wrap up hundreds of deals at one time. These talks may not resolve sensitive or emotional issues such as cyber-security and maritime security disputes. But, without these interactions, China-US ties would only get worse. Therefore, the three tracks of the S&ED, as well as the CPE, have been a great achievement in advancing the China-US bond, while stabilizing fragile ties. This is realistically the best approach available for assuring a smooth transition of the regional and world order, in which all stakeholders can protect their legitimate interests.
Dr. Shen Dingli is a professor and Vice Dean at the Institute of International Affairs, Fudan University. He is also the founder and director of China’s first non-government-based Program on Arms Control and Regional Security at Fudan University.