Language : English 简体 繁體
Foreign Policy

Creating a Human-Interest Agenda for U.S.-China Relations

Jun 16 , 2015

At a summit meeting in 1996, President Jiang Zemin asked Bill Clinton: “Are you trying to contain China or not?” Clinton said, “No, no, I’m trying to engage, I don’t want to contain you.” But Clinton said he told Jiang: “The greatest threat to our security that you present is that all of your people will want to get rich in exactly the same way we got rich. And unless we try to triple the automobile mileage and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, if you all get rich in that way we won’t be breathing very well . . . and you will do irrevocable damage to the global environment.” So Clinton expressed the hope the two countries might collaborate on this issue. Clinton said it seemed Jiang “hadn’t thought about it [US-China relations] just like that before.”[i]

At the time this story appeared, many commentators poked fun at Clinton for seeming to equate climate change with national security. Now one hopes that at least some of them aren’t laughing any more. China now has overtaken the U.S. in carbon dioxide emissions, though on a per person basis the U.S. remains far ahead of China. Clinton was right on the money with what I think was his essential point—that while the “China threat” may seem to be primarily military and economic, the larger problem, which will consume us all if not resolved, is environmental. Hence, one fundamentally strategic interest the U.S. and China share is in leading the way, for the sake of both countries and the world, in dealing effectively with climate change.


If we see climate change as a common human interest of China and the U.S., we can then turn our attention to creating a common security agenda that stands opposite the agenda typically being debated in both countries.[ii] That other agenda is familiar to everyone because it is little different from the one that prevailed in U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War—an agenda dominated by deterrence of threats, real and imagined; zero-sum thinking; worst-case hypothesizing; and interventions of one sort or another in third countries. Today, although U.S.-China relations are marked by many positives that were not part of the old Cold War—a high degree of economic interdependence and numerous points of official and unofficial dialogue and contact—their security agenda still bears several marks of the Cold War era. The disagreements cover a wide range of issues, including maritime territorial disputes in East Asia, cyber hacking, trade competition, China’s military budget, North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, and relations with Russia, to name a few.

As China becomes more and more settled in as a powerful fixture in international affairs, U.S. leaders, particularly in the Pentagon and the Republican side of the Senate, see the “China challenge” as a threat to longstanding U.S. hegemony in Asia and beyond. And in Beijing, we see the mirror image of this concern in frequently expressed Chinese views about U.S. efforts to again contain China, such as by rebalancing US naval power in Asia, siding with Japan on territorial disputes, and pressing South Korea to sign on to a theater missile defense system.

A study by two outstanding analysts of U.S.-PRC relations, one American and the other Chinese, characterizes the relationship as one of “strategic distrust.”[iii] Their conclusion seems entirely appropriate in light of the serious issues that divide the two countries. President Xi Jinping has proposed building a “new kind of great-power relationship” with the United States, presumably to overcome the distrust, but President Obama, while echoing the usual American call for goodwill and hopes that China will be stable and prosperous, has not embraced Xi’s idea. I have written elsewhere that I believe the reason is that the Chinese want recognition of a status that is in keeping with their economic achievements and contributions to international security.[iv] That translates into equality with the U.S.—a senior partner, not a junior one. Such an idea is not likely to be well received by a U.S. leadership that is accustomed to being number one in world affairs and still believes in American exceptionalism.

While it may not be possible for many years to restructure the U.S.-China relationship in ways that reflect genuine partnership, creating a human-interest agenda is one way to improve the relationship. It is a win-win agenda, as the Chinese might put it, and aims at addressing not merely particular national needs but also larger regional and even global concerns. And it would be an agenda that helps build trust between Washington and Beijing.

What might be included in such an agenda?[v] Here are some proposed topics, in no particular order.

  • Water conservation and use planning.
  • A security dialogue mechanism for Northeast Asia, covering common security concerns on the Korean peninsula, Taiwan, and Japan.
  • Species protection.
  • Global warming and climate change.
  • International peacekeeping, especially United Nations action under the “Responsibility to Protect” resolution and humanitarian intervention in general.
  • Joint development assistance in Africa and elsewhere.
  • Joint global education initiatives.
  • Exchanges of cabinet members, military officers, and other public officials
  • Exchanges of NGO personnel dealing with similar issues.
  • Protection of minority peoples.
  • Environmental and labor protection in trade agreements.
  • Military transparency, including maritime codes of conduct and military budgeting.
  • Rules of the road governing cyber attacks.

Some of these items are already part of U.S.-China dialogue, and a few (like climate change) have reached the stage of informal agreement between the current leaderships. Indeed, the two countries meet in about sixty Track I groups—a far cry from Cold War times—and a number of U.S. and Western NGOs operating in China. Nevertheless, a serious shortcoming is that a human-interest agenda identified as such and incorporating items such as those above does not exist; only official groups have been institutionalized, and those typically deal with top-level political, economic, and military issues. Such groups are necessary and can be quite effective, but clearly they have not generated a new level of mutual trust.

What I believe we need is an agenda that speaks directly to the human interest in both countries and beyond—in improved communication and people-to-people interaction, in amelioration of crucial global issues such as environmental protection, and in improved security for individuals and communities. Systematic pursuit of that agenda by China and the United States may create a new paradigm of strategic partnership.


[i] As told by Thomas L. Friedman, “Gardening with Beijing,” New York Times, April 17, 1996.

[ii] I’ve tried to define and elaborate on a human-interest centered world view in Global Politics in the Human Interest 5th rev. ed. (Lynne Rienner, 2007).

[iii] Kenneth Lieberthal and Wang Jisi, “Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust,” John L. Thornton China Center Monograph (Brookings Institution), No. 4 (March 2012).

[iv] “The Uncertain Future of a ‘New Type’ of US-China Relationship,”

[v] Here I draw on my book, Will This Be China’s Century? A Skeptic’s View (Lynne Rienner, 2013).

You might also like
Back to Top