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Foreign Policy

Realistic Expectations and Pragmatic Cooperation: China-US Relations in the Next Ten Years

Feb 22 , 2011
  • Chen Dongxiao

    President, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies

It is  timely to look forward at this start of the 2nd decade of the 21st Century to what the China-US relationship might become in the  next ten years.

Some indications and clues are already apparent, although it is difficult to foresee exactly what will happen, . As China-US relations have transcended their bilateral nature and moved into regional and international spheres, all levels of global activity will be influenced by the interaction between China and the United States. This decade therefore presents both new opportunities and challenges.

Opportunities come first and foremost in the economic field. The world has moved off the bottom of financial crisis and regained some  momentum of growth and restructure. Some projections indicate that the world economy will maintain a  trajectory of medium but stable growth, with emerging powers out-performing Europe and Japan. The re-shaping of international economic and financial systems looks likely to be the first accomplishment, reforming the existing international order which mainly reflects the configuration of powers at the end of World War II. With increased rationality and wider representation, the emerging new international system can ensure economic development in a fairer and more equitable way.

Being the first and second largest economies, but still at different stages of development, America and China  complement each other. Moreover, both are active and constructive actors in re-evaluating and re-shaping the international economic system. They worked together to make the G-20 the premier platform for the world economy and to re-allocate the rights and obligations within the IMF and World Bank.

New demands for eco-advancement and quality of life lead to new opportunities for alternative developmental models. The global financial crisis and economic melt-down has disclosed the shortcomings of the neo-liberal market economy on the one hand and the dynamism of the emerging powers on the other hand. It is widely believed among the developing countries that real and sustainable development must be based on the actual conditions of the subject nation and region. In terms of learning from, and emulating, others, there are now alternative  models besides the established Western ones.

Development itself now takes on new significance. It does not only mean removal of poverty as it predominantly  did in the second half of the 20th Century. Economic growth must not be achieved now at the expense of ecological deterioration or social inequality. All-round, balanced and sustainable development has become the concerted target of international society.

New foci and means of communication also create more opportunities to increase mutual understanding and remove misconceptions. The world is increasingly focusing on practical matters and tackling these pragmatically. Governments and people continue to move beyond  a Cold War mentality and look for concrete solutions. The era of newspapers and radio provided one-way and words-only communication exchanges. The era of TV expanded people’s understanding by adding moving pictures. But the internet era generally liberates the control  of information from a handful of rich countries and conglomerates , and virtually enables all human kind to interact simultaneously and instantly. Monopoly of information becomes a page of the past and demonization of adversaries becomes  increasingly more difficult.

General efforts to avoid and evade large-scale wars by the major actors provide political and security opportunities for world peace and stability. Firstly, most of the major powers and international organizations are predisposed to peaceful negotiation to settle differences among themselves and to contain minor conflicts and  wars. Secondly, many regional and sub-regional organizations play a role that is beyond the powers of the current global system. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization becomes important in combating terrorism, secessionism and religious extremism. The African Union and some sub-regional organizations play an active role in mediating perennial or temporary feuds, keeping and making peace in war-torn countries and areas, and charting political union roadmaps. Thirdly, there is some progress in mechanism building andimprovement. United Nations’ reform has moved it from eminent group into state action and  there are some encouraging new signs in nuclear security efforts, such as the CTBT, NPT and New START and Deeper Reduction. In commercial  use of nuclear materials and outer-space arms control, mechanism-building has also attracted more international attention.

Although both China and the United States take a strategic view of their bilateral relations, they appear to be  unable to remove some basic differences. Therefore, it looks likely that pragmatism will continue to be a feature of the policies and measures they adopt to meet new challenges.

Limited goals, accumulative effects and incremental ways will be the main features of their dealings with the fundamental differences. The United States continues to want China to change its basic political system and mainstream ideology. However, the U.S. knows the limits of its capability to achieve these goals. In reality in its dealings with China, the United States cares more for its practical interests. China continues to defend its core national interests, especially on issues related to sovereignty and territorial integrity. Given the real conditions both at home and abroad, China takes every necessary step towards achieving its ultimate goals.

Consultation, negotiation and bargaining will be the main means for the two countries to settle their differences in global and regional governance. At a global level, China and the United States are working  stronger to  define their roles and joint responsibilities in solving global issues, such as climate change and energy security and in dealing with hotspots such as North Korean and Iranian nuclear issues. At a regional level, the Asia-Pacific will be the focal point of both powers, namely the three topics of the “10+8” formula, TPP and the roles of military alliances led by the United States.

Immediate interests, tangible benefits and proven achievements are the most effective way to garner domestic support for a stable and predictable relationship between China and the United States. With a lack of strategic and political cohesiveness between them and the inward-looking mentalities of each country, the two governments need to vindicate the need to maintain good relations by showing economic benefits and ecological improvements. In the Second Decade, they must translate their economic strength into, among others, job-creation, trade balances and clean energy. The two countries therefore face a serious challenge to bring equilibrium to  their immediate and long-term interests. Such tight-rope walking will be a test of their capabilities to handle their relationship in the upcoming ten years.

Chen Dongxiao is Vice President of Shanghai Institutes for International Studies

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