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Foreign Policy

Contradictions and Strategic Anxieties in China-US Relations

Oct 09 , 2011
  • Yuan Peng

    Vice President, Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations

The current development of China-US relations has opened a new historic page for the peaceful co-existence of two big powers operating under different systems, maintaining different modes of living, and standing at different stages of development. With China’s rise to be the world’s second biggest power in terms of economic aggregate, acceleration of its military modernization, and constant perfection of its development model, the United States has increased its vigilance and keeps a closer eye on China, bringing the contradictions in Sino-US relations into increasing prominence and triggering corresponding changes in the strategic thinking of both countries. As the two countries react against each other, the risks in Sino-US relations have become unprecedentedly graver. How to rein in and eliminate these risks has become, therefore, a major strategic issue for consideration in the future development of their relationship.    

As is well known, some dramatic changes took place in China-US relations between 2009 and 2011, something rarely seen since the establishment of diplomatic links between the two countries. This new development was not accidental. One fundamental reason for it lies in the growing manifestation of the structural contradictions between the two countries and the fermentation of contradictions in their respective thinking. As the two factors acted on each other, the contradictions became even more inclusive, deep-rooted and riskier than before, dampening people’s confidence in the future of Sino-US relations.

The contradictions in the relationship are related to four issues:
1.The contradiction between a rising power and an established hegemony
2.The contradiction resulting from geopolitics
3.The contradiction between political systems and ideologies
4.The Taiwan issue

These structural contradictions, closely related to each other and mutually influential, are rooted in the changed balance of strength between China and the United States due to the former’s unexpected rise and the latter’s sudden suffering of heavy losses from the financial crisis. Given the changes in the Middle East and the devastating earthquake in Japan, it is anticipated that China will maintain its fast and steady pace of growth as long as it braces itself and seizes whatever opportunities come its way. The US ideological circle, meanwhile, can by no means turn a blind eye to three major challenges from China’s rise: the monstrous challenge to resources, energy and other economic fields from the rapid rise of a big power with 1.3-1.5 billion people; the great challenge to social systems, development models and other political sectors from the rapid rise of the only socialist power in the world; and the huge challenge in military security from a big power that has not yet solved all its issues over sovereignty and territorial integrity and that is speeding up its military modernization. This being the case, the structural contradictions in the relationship will continue to intensify as the United States tries to rise from its economic mire, safely withdraw its military intervention in various countries, and remodel its strategic image.

This will lead to another major issue haunting the two countries, namely the growing exposure of their philosophical contradictions. By this, we mean their different outlook, large divergence or wide gap in thinking on the same issue. The reason why Sino-US relations experienced big fluctuations over the past two years lies, to a great extent, in their mistaken interpretation of the changes in their respective positions of strength. In China, for instance, there is a stronger perception of the fall of the United States. Coupled with the daily intensification of its social contradictions and constant diversification of its social forces, China has adopted a hawkish position in its foreign relations and become more outspoken on all international issues. As for its policy toward the United States, in particular, China is growing a little rash and hasty. Seen from the positive side, this shows China’s growing self-confidence in diplomatic dealings and its readiness to uphold principles and meet fire with fire in matters concerning its core interests. Its military, meanwhile, is putting even more emphasis on safeguarding core national interests, and would be loathe to bow to the United States in key fields. Seen from the negative side, however, the Chinese people have become noticeably less tolerant of US words and deeds. It is high time, they believe, for China to ask the US for explanations, at least, about certain issues. What is more important is that public opinion is exerting an ever more present impact on China’s diplomacy, or even intervening in the country’s formulation of diplomatic policies. Even US studies, originally designed to ‘tap public wisdom,’ have come to be a target of criticism by the media and the public.

In the United States, meanwhile, the mentality is to amplify the aftermath of China’s rise, and worry about the US’s position of strength without any justifiable reason. As political polarization and conservatism keep gaining ground, economic nationalism and social populism have boomed in the United States, further cementing Americans’ sensitive and fragile mentality. On the diplomatic front, this mentality has manifested itself as an outbreak of strategic anxiety disorder. As for its policies on China, the United States would simply label China’s expression of popular will and filing of diplomatic appeals as being arrogant or triumphalist, maintaining that China, believing it is now powerful enough to challenge the United States, wants to alter the rules governing the Sino-US game. If Obama offered a soft hand to win support from China during his first year in office, he immediately hardened up toward China in the following year to send one message: US hegemony allows no challenge.
If the structural contradictions intensify and the strategic anxieties grow at the same time, it will be inevitable for Sino-US relations to move toward a tragedy of power politics. Such being the case, it is necessary to bring these contradictions under control or totally defuse them if China and the United States hope to develop a partnership of mutual respect, mutual benefit, common gain, and lasting strategic stability.

Looking ahead, the following three points will be of paramount importance for the development and maintenance of a new-type of stable strategic partnership between China and the United States:
First, tightening the interest bind;Second, strengthening risk control; and Third, fostering common values.

Yuan Peng is  assistant to the president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations and director of its Institute of American Studies.

Originally posted at, with some omissions and revisions made in this version

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