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Foreign Policy

Joint Studies on Sino-US Relations Are Necessary

Mar 31 , 2014
  • Wang Wenfeng

    Professor, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

The idea of the New Model of Major Power Relations between China and the US sounds too good to be true to skeptics. It is understandable because if you follow the news about Sino-US relations, you hear, from time to time, the two countries are at odds with each other over many issues, some of them quite substantial. Therefore, in order to build a new model of relationship, and to make sure that the future of the most important bilateral relationship in today’s world is a promising one rather than a dismal one, it will take not only pushing by both countries’ governments and political leaders, but also serious research and convincing studies of feasibility. People need to be persuaded by sound analyses that working toward a new model of relationship between a rising power like China and an established power like the US is not just a slogan, an unrealistic dream, or a waste of time, but rather, it is something worth doing. The recently published report by Center for American Progress, titled “A New Model for US-China Relations: Pivotal Power Pairs as Bulwarks of the International System,” is definitely one of the most comprehensive and deep-thinking products by American academics addressing the topic of a new model of major power relations between China and the United States. It provides excellent analyses of necessities and possibilities of a new model relationship and does some groundbreaking work in terms of developing the concept. The joint study by CAP and the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF) is worthy of praise and appreciation by people who care about this topic. 

On the question of why building the new model relationship is necessary, the report goes beyond bilateral context. As “pivotal powers,” China and the US are responsible for playing a leading role in the making of a just global order. Therefore “the search for a new model of major power relations” is not only about peace and problem managing between China and the US, it is also “a facet of the broader question of what the global order should look like over the coming decades.” The building of a new model relationship is not only important for the two countries, but it is critical for the international community. By working together, China and the US will set a good example for others, because the model “applies to all pivotal power relationships.” China and the US are not the only “pivotal power pairs” in the world. There are others like the United States and Russia, China and Europe, and even advanced industrialized Western countries and emerging economies as groups, whose support is indispensible for the international system to hold. The report also astutely points out that the new model relationship between China and the US will not become true as a natural thing, rather, it will depend on a conscious effort by the two countries, because without a clear picture of a long-term future, the bilateral relationship may “tend to default to the historical pattern of inevitable violent conflict” as other rising powers and established powers have experienced. 

Those who worry that the future of US-China relations will turn out to be a “tragedy of power politics” use history as evidence to support their points. This is typical in many works by realists like Professor John Mearsheimer. These realists use cases like the Peloponnesian War, World War I and World War II to prove that conflicts between rising powers and established powers are common, implying that China and the US are on the same track and conflict between them is inevitable. The CAP report challenges this theory by giving a deep look into the three historical cases mentioned above, and concludes, “they do not point to inevitable hostility in the US-China relationship.” 

Great power relations have always been a major topic of international relations theory. Apart from the school of realism, as mentioned above, liberalism and constructivism are both among the most influential schools of theory. The report gives readers a whole picture by summarizing different schools of theory and their different approaches to relations between rising and established powers, reaching the conclusion that at the theoretical level, conflict or war between China and the US is not a sure thing as some have argued. 

Usually, policy reports do not touch on historical and theoretical analyses. This report devotes a portion of it to examine the most used historical cases and major schools of international relations theory. That lays a strong foundation for the report’s own conclusion and helps making the report itself a really outstanding academic product among others. 

Critics of the new model of China-US relations dismiss the concept as “empty,” meaning it doesn’t have much concrete content in it so people just don’t know what exactly it will turn out to be. Maybe with this in mind, authors of the report try to put more muscle on bone. By asking and addressing questions like:  “What are the characteristics of an ideal but realistic US-China relationship?” and “What is a plausible, positive vision of a US-China relationship in ten years?”, they actually give readers a clear idea of how they see the gap between today’s bilateral relationship and a reachable and much better “new model” one. With a concrete goal in sight, the report lays out ten principles to guide major power relations and goes further on to list “key steps China and the US need to take separately and together to put the relationship on a stable path to a plausible, positive future.” Compared with the skeptics who can only challenge the concept of the New Model of Major Power Relations, authors of the report show their deeper thinking and positive, constructive spirit, which are absolutely necessary for China and the US in order to think outside the existing frame and creatively design the path for the two countries to move forward. 

That being said, like any other well-done study, this report has its weak points, and that may be more a reflection of the problems with current Sino-US relations than with the authors. “International norms,” “international rules,” and “regional institutions” are key words and concepts in the report, upon which the authors base their recommendations. Not coincidentally, when the Obama administration talks about building a new model of bilateral relations with China, they frequently use these concepts. The problem lies in the fact that on some of the major issues, like state sovereignty, maritime security and international trade, we see a wide gap between the two countries. Hence the questions: “Whose norms are we talking about?” and “What do you mean by being responsible?” Compared with this report, the one by China’s Shanghai Institute for International Studies pretty much ignores concepts like “norms” and “rules,” at least in section headings. When words like these are used, it is more likely in the context of “mutual accepted norms” or “development of rules.” China does want to play by rules, but also wants to have a say in the making of rules. So far, the two countries have yet to find more common ground on this “rules” issue. Apart from this, we see in other places that the CAP report speaks on behalf of US interests. For example, when talking about principles governing pivotal power relations, it addresses issues like China’s emphasis on “core interests,” China’s “not playing according to common rules” in trade, and China’s lack of decision-making transparency. These are complaints the US side often makes of China, and thus they are quite understandable in a product by American academics. That’s why joint studies by scholars from both countries are necessary. 

Wang Wenfeng is an Associate Professor at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

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