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Foreign Policy

Can China and the U.S. Build a New Relationship?

Jan 23 , 2013
  • Wang Yusheng

    Executive Director, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

After the reelection of Obama and the establishment of Xi Jinping as China’s new leader, many asked what would become of the Sino-U.S. relationship? Is it gradually relaxing, or heading for confrontation? If the so-called G2 won’t work, would a “G2-C” work? Is it possible for the two countries to build a new-type of relationship?

China’s new leader Xi Jinping proposed this in his 2012 trip to the Unites States. Over the past several decades, China and the U.S. have traveled a path from confrontation to cooperation. This has not come easily. If the US leadership can adapt to the trend of the times, the current “uncomfortable interdependence” between the two countries will gradually become more comfortable, and march toward “a new type of relations between major countries”.

Firstly, the times have changed and national strategic objectives have naturally altered. During the time of imperialism and colonialism, when a country at the “No. 1” position declined, another country suddenly emerged, and the latter would inevitably challenge the former, demanding the re-division of spheres of influence and leading to contradictions, conflicts and confrontation, or even to war.

The U.S. may proclaim its determination not to become the “No. 2.” However, among the large number of emerging developing countries, is there any one challenging or demanding to replace the U.S. and become the “No. 1”? China, No! In my view, India, Brazil and other countries, neither! Their demands are no more than “equal treatment”, as well as a more fair and rational international political and economic order. China is all the more vehement in calling for “building a harmonious world”, “respecting diversified civilization” and “seeking common development”. This is all clear.

Second, China and the U.S. are becoming more and more interdependent in the economic field. Since the establishment of diplomatic relationsthe bilateral trade volume has increased more than 180 fold, reaching $446.6 billion in 2012. It is expected to surpass $500 billion in 2013. Over the past decade, US exports to China increased by 468%. China has become the market for the fastest growth of US exports. Neither side should shut its eyes to this fact. Peace and cooperation will bring a win-win outcome, while struggle or pressure will harm both.

Third, as early as at the end of last century, President Clinton stood for “working with China to build a constructive strategic partnership aimed at the 21st century.” While President Bush Jr. later negated this, he had to make adjustments and stand for a positive cooperative relationship between the two countries. Since Obama took office, the two sides are determined to build a “cooperative partnership featuring mutual respect and win-win cooperation.” The leaders of the two countries are both deeply convinced that a stronger Sino-U.S. relationship not only accords with the fundamental interests of their people, but also benefits the entire Asia-Pacific region and the world at large. Chinese leaders have always regarded this as the solemn international commitment and handled all frictions between the two countries in this larger context. The US can also not afford to neglect this.

Thus we should be cautiously optimistic about the Sino-U.S. relationship. It will not be impossible to build a new type of relationship.

 But it will be extremely difficult. The reasons are multifarious: the impact of obsolete historical views; the differences between cultures and social systems; the collision of actual interests and uncoordinated values. But the most fundamental reason is perhaps the trouble caused by a Cold-War mentality and a hegemonic strategy.

US political analyst Joseph Nye once said that “a belief in the inevitability of war can itself be a cause of danger” and if we take China as an enemy now, we will possibly make an enemy for ourselves. I believe that this is still relevant today. At the end of 2000, on the eve of Bush Jr. taking presidential office, I stressed that only if the U.S. regards China as a potential cooperative partner, will the U.S. be able to really make a friend instead of an enemy. My remarks were not made without purpose. The US neo-conservative idealists have all along regarded China as a potential, or even a realistic, strategic adversary.  

In 2009, Zbigniew Brzezinski stressed that the constructive interdependence between China and the U.S. is an important base for global political and economic stability. The U.S.-China relationship must be a comprehensive global partnership similar to the U.S.-Europe and U.S.-Japan relationships. Recently, he further pointed out that only if both the U.S. and China clearly state a posture of not seeking hegemony and accept the fact that the other side plays a central role in global affairs, will their bilateral relationship be stable. 

US leaders have repeatedly claimed that if China abides by international rules and acts like a responsible power, U.S.-China relations will improve. The question is: what are the “international rules”? The purpose and spirit of the UN Charter formulated after WWII is already recognized as the authentic “international rules.”. But US leader Bush Jr. acted as though US authority was above the United Nations. Should China cast away the UN Charter and abide by American “international rules”?

Shifting its strategic focus eastward, the U.S. has repeatedly stressed the necessity of an “Asian military rebalance”. The Chinese people are puzzled: Have the military forces in Asia ever been “balanced”? The U.S. has always commanded a superiority. As a matter of fact, the U.S. does not want a genuine “balance.” It is afraid of losing its absolute superiority and weakening its capability to get involved in other countries’ internal affairs. In line with this idea, the U.S. has incessantly clamored that the enhancement of China’s “anti-access” forces has broken the balance of forces in the Asia-Pacific region. To put it bluntly, if China’s comprehensive military power is enhanced, the ability for the U.S. to interfere in China’s internal affairs and violate China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty will be weakened. The U.S. will be not reconciled to this. Therefore, it needs a “rebalance” so as to maintain its superiority.

Such examples are far too numerous. The ball is in the US court. So long as the U.S. can make efforts in the same direction as China does, there is hope. Otherwise, the same situation “you are either with us or against us” will remain. Confrontation might even break out. This is the last thing China would like to see.

Wang Yusheng is China’s former APEC senior official, and the Executive director at the Strategy Study Center of the China Foundation for International Studies 



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