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Foreign Policy

Recent Trends in China-US Relations and Their Implications for the Regional Order

Feb 16 , 2011
  • Wang Jisi

    President, Institute of International and Strategic Studies, Peking University

The events in 2010 related to China-US relations do not bode well for regional stability in Asia. The first three months of 2010 witnessed bilateral contentions between Beijing and Washington regarding US decision to sell advanced weapons to Taiwan, quarrels over Google’s activities in China, President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in the White House, and US Treasury Department’s threat to label China as a “currency manipulator.”

President Hu Jintao’s attendance to the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in April and the second round of China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue held in May temporarily warmed the atmosphere. But it soon got sour again regarding the case of the alleged North Korea sinking of a South Korean warship and over some broader maritime security issues. In Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement at an ARF meeting in July, she urged the creation of a binding code of conduct for the six states claiming disputed islands in the South China Sea, including China, and declared that the United States “has a national interest in freedom of navigation” there. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi responded harshly to her remarks, followed by strong reactions from the Chinese media.

In August, Chinese officials and commentators, especially those working for the PLA, reprimanded the planned US-ROK joint military exercises at the Yellow Sea. In the same period, Chinese leaders warmly greeted North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jung-Il during his second trip to China in the year. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo announced in October was accused in China as an American plot to embarrass Beijing. US official statements in September/October that the disputed Diaoyu Islands (known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands) in the East China Sea are covered by the US-Japan bilateral security treaty further offended Beijing. President Barack Obama’s Asia trip in November reportedly sent a clear signal that Washington is seeking partnerships in this region as a counterweight to China’s rising power.

On November 23, North Korea and South Korea exchanged artillery fire near their western maritime border. Contrasting American and Chinese reactions to this crisis have accentuated their mutual mistrust. The Americans are trying to pressure China to constrain North Korea’s behavior, but the pressure may further convince Beijing of Washington’s “ulterior motives.” Whereas some Americans view this case to be not only a “North Korea problem” but also, more importantly, a “China problem,” many in China believe that the US should be held ultimately responsible for the tensions on the peninsula and that the sending of the USS aircraft carrier George Washington to the Yellow Sea following this crisis was a provocation to China.

These events reflected some long-term trends leading to a deepening mutual distrust and geostrategic competition between the two giants.

The global financial crisis since 2008 has provided a broader international backdrop for the China-US competition. While the United States has been hit hard by the financial turbulence and economic slowdown, Europe and Japan seem to be comparatively even weaker in the decline of the Western world. Many American decision-makers, members of Congress and think tanks identify China as a major source of the present global economic imbalance and press China to evaluate its currency by a large margin. As a status quo power, the United States also wants to sustain its dollar domination and military superiority when both of them are going to be challenged by a fast growing Chinese power. Washington has rejected the notion that the United States is a declining power and should behave as such.

The Chinese, on their side, have seen a new and rapidly changing global political and economic landscape essentially in their favor. In their eyes, the emerging economies in the developing world with the cooperation among them are challenging the Western domination and eclipsing the Western models of development.

As noted by some Chinese observers, for the first time in modern history China has entered the center stage in global economic and political affairs, as best illustrated in the G20 meetings where China plays a pivotal role — forget about the recent past when Chinese leaders were “invited as guests” to G8 meetings. China is now the second largest economy in the world in GDP terms. In 2003 when China-US relations were praised in both countries as the “best in history,” China’s GDP was less than 1/8 of that of the United States. In comparison, China’s economic size in 2009 became greater than 1/3 of the US economy. It is estimated that by 2020-2030 China may surpass the United States as the largest economy in the world. If time is on the side of China, why doesn’t it adopt a more proactive, assertive foreign policy?

The domestic scenes in both nations are not encouraging for a more cooperative US-China relationship. Protectionist tides are rising in America, while American enterprises doing business with China are complaining about its new practices and policies to promote Chinese indigenous innovation projects at the expense of joint ventures. China-bashing was a notable feature in the recent midterm American elections.

In China, popular sentiments and public opinion polls have shown an increasingly tainted image of the United States. The media depicts the Obama administration as more hostile to China than the G.W. Bush administration, as indicated in Washington’s recent moves to strengthen military alliances and security relationships in Asia, presumably aimed at containing China. The US Federal Reserve’s “easy money” policy is pumping up oil prices around the world, which, in the eyes of some Chinese, may be a cause for the current inflation in China that affects their daily life. Chinese sensitivities to domestic political stability lead to increased suspicions of US schemes to interfere in China’s internal affairs. The perceived success of the “China model” is providing more reasons for the Chinese to resist calls for Western-type democracy and human rights.

These developments in China-US relations are making a remarkable impact on the Asian regional order. First, both giants loom larger in the Asia-Pacific, but for different reasons. China’s economic interests and activities are felt in every corner here, and the regional powers are increasingly depending on China’s trade and investment. For example, the trade volume between South Korea and China has now surpassed South Korea’s trade volumes with the United States and Japan putting together. The United States has to step up its economic cooperation with Asian countries, as shown in the KORUS negotiations. However, the real strength of the United States in the region is its security role. Faced with a rising China, with which several Asian countries have territorial disputes, many people in the region view the US as a counterbalance and a stabilizing actor. Since the two giants have different roles to play and are not mutually replaceable, many regional powers are caught in a dilemma when the two are competing for influence.

Second, other Asian powers sometimes play a double game between the two giants. American policy analysts often present a picture to show that people in the region are troubled by China’s assertiveness. However, based on what they hear and observe in the neighboring countries, Chinese officials and analysts tend to believe that it is the United States that is attempting to drive a wedge between China and its neighbors. This belief may lead to greater Chinese efforts not only to mend fences with other Asian countries but also to fend off American influences. Indeed, there could be different attitudes between and within the regional powers for each giant to take advantage of.

Third, when the focus of the security concerns between China and the United States is shifting from the Taiwan problem to the maritime issue in the Western Pacific, the strategic situation in Asia has been further complicated. With the US-China competition intensified, it becomes more difficult to construct a comprehensive regional security architecture that would include both the United States and China and provide viable peace and stability.

Wang Jisi is the Dean of the School of International Studies, Peking University

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