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Foreign Policy

China-U.S. Relationship: Time to Focus on the Larger Picture

Jan 14 , 2015
  • Cui Liru

    Former President, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

The most critical factor in understanding the current state of the China-U.S. relationship is the ability to see it in the larger picture. In other words, in the 21st-Century international landscape and where it is headed.

The political, economic and security order of the world today is undergoing a rapid shift. International relations have never appeared as fluid as they do today. To some extent, the same can be said about the China-U.S. relationship, which is very much a part of that larger transformational trend.

This relationship has been an intrinsically complex one from the very beginning and even more so in a time of major change. It presents both opportunities and challenges featuring contradictory trends and competing interests. For many trying hard to peek through the mist into where exactly this relationship stands, the best they can do is to provide a personal perspective, which could be vastly different given the wide perception gaps that exist. People are starting to question even some of the widely shared views about this relationship. It seems that no one is able to describe precisely what the whole picture of China-U.S. relations looks like at the moment. This is not unexpected, because the relationship is going through a transition. The current decade is a morphing period for the world. And the China-U.S. relationship is no exception.

As far as the global political structure or strategic order is concerned, the unipolar international system with the United States at the center is already unraveling, even though it remains the single superpower in the world. But it is anyone’s guess now what the future multipolar order would look like. Some say it will turn into a nonpolar world, while others believe with China on track to become a new superpower, a bipolar world is on the horizon.

People tend to believe that since China became the world’s second largest economy, the competition between the United States, an established power, and China, a rising power, has grown fierce. But opinion is divided as to where this competition will lead. On the one hand, by definition, a rising power is on the up, whereas an established power tries to avoid a decline. In this sense, China apparently has more reason for confidence and optimism.

On the other hand, though the United States is relatively on a decline, it is still way ahead of China in terms of strength and influence. As for how long the disparity will last, opinion is again divided. Their duration of influence is determined by not just the two countries’ actions at home and abroad in the next one or two decades, but also plenty of other factors beyond their own borders. In a word, the answer to the question remains largely uncertain.

The world is an ever-changing place. The current international system is still dominated by the United States but the nature of the shift from a U.S.-centric post-Cold War unipolar order to multipolar one is a process of decentralization. Needless to say, despite its structural effect on everyone, the biggest impact of that shift will descend upon the United States. The shift is, however, generally in China’s favor. The United States apparently has a much bigger stake in the unipolar system. For every five to eight units of stakes that China holds in that system, the United States probably holds 20 to 30 or even more, hence the much bigger impact of the structural change on the United States than on the emerging powers. In the same vein, regions suffering from instability and turmoil, partly attributable to the structural change, pose a bigger challenge for the United States too. Though the United States has scaled down its role abroad and “pivoted” to the Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and the situation in Europe have held the Obama Administration back from executing its diplomatic strategy effectively.

What matters most to the China-U.S. relationship is its overall direction. Throughout the decades since the two sides resumed engagement, this relationship has on the whole been moving in the right direction even though their aims do not always align. Admittedly, there has been friction, tensions and even clashes, but the two countries are neither on a collision course nor moving in opposite directions.

However, with the ongoing tectonic shift in international relations, structural tensions and strategic competition between the two countries are on the rise, raising uncertainty about this relationship. A particular source of concern is the risk of confrontation caused by misjudgment following unexpected incidents. The possibilities of a head-on collision could thus become very real. As a matter of fact, ongoing debates about the so-called “inevitability of rivalry between a rising power and an established power” or “a new Cold War” all boil down to one question: will there be a fundamental shift in the future direction of China-U.S. relations?

To answer that question, China needs to answer the following questions first: how should it perceive this world? As it grows in strength and forges closer ties with the world, what kind of relations and order does it desire? What does it want to achieve with the United States? What China wants is very much associated with U.S. interests, because China is an integral part of the world. “What China wants” is primarily determined by what the world looks like in China’s eyes. Some argue that China’s goal is to become a major power with global preeminence. Others argue it is better for China to focus on East Asia alone and be content with being the leader of the region — a wise decision from weighing its strength and bearing in mind what happened to empires that came before the United States. There are even those who urge China to be more ambitious and replace the United States. But that creates the question of how exactly can China achieve that. Does China have the capacity? When should that happen? In what way can it happen? I do not think people in China have truly gone through with these questions yet.

Instead of taking over the U.S. position in the world, China can also choose to live in peace with the United States. Ideally, the gap between the two countries will gradually shrink and eventually they will get along with each other in a multipolar world. But before we ever reach that day, we still need to ask ourselves: what exactly does “living in peace with the United States” mean for us? What is the clearest pathway toward that end? Can China and the United States live together in peace in Asia? As big as these questions may be, they hold the key to keeping the China-U.S. relationship on the right track into the future. This is the larger picture, which actually explains why the Chinese side put forward the concept of “a new model of major-country relationship.”

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