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Foreign Policy

China-US Relations: Greater Promise Demands Greater Efforts

Nov 22 , 2014
  • Jia Qingguo

    Dean, School of Int'l Studies, Peking University

The much anticipated Xi-Obama summit in Beijing finally drew to a close. Like the Sunnylands summit last June, the Beijing summit stirred up hope that the relationship between these two countries is headed on the right track. There is indeed much to hope for. The Beijing summit yielded even more results than the previous Xi-Obama talk in Sunnylands.

At the international level, the two countries agreed to work together to push for a global agreement on climate change in 2015, to fight terrorism, and to enhance cooperation on the prosecution of corrupt officials, drug smuggling, and cyber crimes between law enforcement agencies of the two countries. At the regional level, the two countries agreed to offer more aid to West Africa to counter the Ebola outbreak. They also agreed to enhance cooperation and dialogue on such issues ranging from nuclear weapon programs of Iran and the DPRK to the situation of Afghanistan.

At the bilateral level, the two countries agreed to expedite talks on a bilateral investment treaty, to expand tariff-free coverage of the bilateral trade of information technologies, to liberalize visa policies to facilitate travel between the two countries, and to undertake confidence building measures such as advanced notice of major military maneuvers and a code of conduct of military vessels and aircrafts in the high seas.

Judging from the numerous agreements the two sides reached, the summit is by any measure a spectacular success. If these agreements become fully implemented, China-U.S. relations would certainly propel to a higher level: more trust in political relations, more integrated and mutually beneficial economic relations, and more stable and predictable military relations.

While celebrating the achievements, however, one should not be overly optimistic about the future of the relationship. If history is of any guide, its future development is unlikely to be a smooth one. In history, whenever the relationship between the two countries gets heated up, chances are a cold spell follows. This has happened many times before. The most recent case is what happened following the Sunnylands Summit last year; it did not take long for the relationship to run into a series of troubles over such issues as Edward Snowden, the Diaoyu Islands, South China Sea, cyber espionage, Ukraine, and most recently the Hong Kong political demonstrations. In all these instances, many were deeply concerned that the relationship was heading toward confrontation.

Structurally, the vast differences (history, culture, levels of economic development, and political systems) between the two countries and huge economic stakes have placed the relationship in a delicate balance which reaches its limit whether bilateral cooperation increases or decreases. For that reason, the history of the China-U.S. relationship has been one of limited cooperation and limited conflicts.

Moreover, despite the successes of the summit, many challenges to the relationship remain, complicating efforts of cooperation. To begin, a sizable group of people in both countries continue to view the relationship from an offensive realist perspective. That is, they believe the conflicting interests of the two countries decide that the relationship will inevitably be confrontational, just as what happened to other rising powers established in recent 20th century history. No matter how hard China and the U.S. may try to avoid the Thucydides trap, both could end up in the trap sooner or later, especially if the offensive realist mindset remains constant. This is what they call the tragedy of great power politics.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that, as China rises, it increasingly finds itself with dual identities and interests in many areas. In terms of identities, China is both a developing country and a developed one; both a poor country and a rich one; both a weak country and a strong one; and both an ordinary power and a superpower. Identity defines interests. Accordingly, China has interests of both a developing country and a developed one, of both a poor country and a rich one, of both a weak country and a strong one, and of both an ordinary power and a superpower. With dual identities and interests, China finds it increasingly difficult to define its interests, reconcile its conflicts, set priorities, and maintain a coherent foreign policy. This in turn makes the outside world confused and concerned, posing a serious challenge both to China and other countries as they try to gage each other’s intentions.

Against such background, differences between the two countries are likely to be magnified. Both old issues such as human rights, arms sale, Tibet and trade, as well as new issues like maritime disputes, government procurement, foreign investment and cyber security are increasingly viewed with frustration and alarm. The availability of Internet communication technologies also fuels such feelings. As a result, people in both countries are taking a less sanguine view of the positive prospects of the relationship than before.

Finally, the politics of the two countries further complicates the relationship. Out of their own interests and beliefs, individuals and interest groups will continue to view the relationship and priorities of the two countries differently and push for their own agendas at the expense of the overall relationship. Politicians find it increasingly profitable to exploit these issues for their personal political advantages. In this regard, the recent negative reactions to the Xi-Obama agreement on climate change on the part of the Republican leaders of the House and the Senate of the U.S. Congress illustrate how domestic political contests may hinder China-U.S. cooperation on various issues.

All this suggests one should not be too sanguine about the future development of the relationship despite the positive results of the recent Xi-Obama summit. Many obstacles need to be overcome to implement the agreements and realize the ambitions to build a new type of great power relationship between the two countries.

Greater promise demands greater efforts. Difficult as it is, the two countries have no choice but to work together to avoid confrontation and develop cooperation. It is not just something desirable; it is something absolutely necessary because the stakes are high. The two countries must succeed. Failure to do so may lead to an unprecedented tragedy in human history.

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