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Foreign Policy

Shaping a New Type of China-US Relationship

Dec 17 , 2012
  • Wu Zhenglong

    Senior Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

As the American presidential campaign and the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China were over, the future development of the China-U.S. Relations, the most complex bilateral relations in today’s world, has drawn wide attention across the world.

After a stock-taking of Obama’s China policy in his first presidential tenure, it is not difficult to discern that the Obama Administration failed to engage China in a new way against the general background of economic globalization and political multipolarization, due to its inadequate understanding of the difficulty and complexity of the China-U.S. Relations. The Americans swung to the extremity of “Asia Pivot” (changed to “re-balancing” this year) from humming “we are in the same boat”, and fanning up the ideas of “G2″ in the mass media.

 The U.S. pursues manifold objectives in its “Pivot to Asia” policy, among which two carry the most weight. Firstly, the U.S. intended to speed up domestic economic recovery by taking the ride of the group rise of the emerging Asia powers and shift of the economic center of gravity from the west to the east where the economic development is burgeoning. Secondly, the U.S. wished to balance the increasing influence of China in the Asia Pacific region.

With a weak economic recovery dampened by high debt, high deficit, and high unemployment, the first objective should have been promoted as the key option. However, except for the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” with an unpredictable prospect, the U.S. fell short of any relevant measures in this field. On the other hand, the China factor was amplified disproportionately to become the pillar of the strategy only to cause serious strategic aftermaths.

 East Asia is known for its complicated security situation. To aggravate it, the U.S. announced to deploy 60% of its warships to the Asia Pacific region by 2020, held joint military activities frequently aiming at China, sold arms to its allies and partners resulting in accelerating arms race in the region, and intensified territorial disputes through de facto support for one side, such as over the disputes between Japan and China, and over the South China Sea dispute. The intensified gaming between China and the U.S. created serious impacts on the bilateral relationship.

 In addition, the U.S throwing its dead weight in this patch of the world also implies greater strategic risks. Currently, the European Union is still broiled in its debt crisis, while the Middle East chaos is going on, Against this backdrop, the U.S has its strengths “shrunk” to the relatively stable Asia Pacific region. This move of U.S. “ignoring” these areas will bring some risks to the US strategic interests. The recent assault on the U.S. Ambassador in Libya and the anti-American wave in the Middle East have exemplified this risk.

Despite the difficulty in bilateral relations caused by the US pivot to Asia policy, China sticks to its commission to peaceful development and a win-win situation with the US. Both sides have made efforts for better cooperation. The heads of states of China and the U.S. met 11 times in the past three years, and the two sides have established over 60 bilateral dialogue mechanisms at different levels and in various areas; The two countries are the biggest trade partner to each other with the bilateral trade volume registering US$446.6 billion in 2011 and hopefully to surpass US$500 billion in 2012; over three million visits between the two countries are exchanged each year.

Looking ahead, it is the author’s view that the cooperation between China and the U.S. will be enhanced continuously while competition will get intensified simultaneously. The two countries should make sure that the cooperation be conducted in a mutually beneficial and win-win way, while competition be a course of benign interaction. To avoid repeating the historical mistake of big power antagonism and zero-sum game, the sole correct option is to develop a new type of relationship between the two countries.

When visiting the U.S. in last February, Xi Jinping called for an “unprecedented and inspiring” type of relationship between the two countries, which was positively echoed by the U.S. side. President Obama stressed that the U.S. “welcomes China’s peaceful rise”, indicating that the U.S. and China can prove to the world that the two countries will not repeat the tragedy in history in developing bilateral relationship. Secretary of the State Hilary Clinton also suggested to “find a new answer to the ancient question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet”.

Now in 21st century, China and the U.S. have the following basis to open a new road to the new type of relationship between the two countries:

First, the sustained development of globalization has bound up the whole world into a new scenario of unprecedented interdependence and overlapping interests. The development and prosperity of one country is not only good to the country per se but also benefitial to other countries. A lot of human security and survival threats become global issues and their solutions go beyond the capacity of a single country and call for international cooperation. Thus, ,mutual respect and mutual benefit become the common goal of various countries.

Secondly, China is not the former Soviet Union and will not seek to expand its ideology and overturn the existing international system. With incompatible international concepts, the U.S. and the Soviet Union once established two parallel and antagonistic camps. But now, China and the U.S. are in the same international system, espousing the same rules both at the economic and political levels. Furthermore, from the perspective of the two countries’ strategic options, China hopes to get further incorporated in the existing international system instead of building a new one, while the U.S. wants to pull China further in this international system instead of kicking her out. Therefore, China and the U.S. will not tread the old route once taken by the U.S. and Soviet Union in those old days.

Thirdly, the international system accommodating both China and the U.S. is “open” in nature. In the post-crisis era, the international system is experiencing a paradigm shift that has never happened in many years of the past. The “openness” of the international system created by the great changes has further abated the possibility of the zero-sum game engaging China and the U.S. This provides China and the U.S. with more opportunities to build a new type of cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship.

However, we shall not underestimate the overwhelming pessimism existing in both countries on the China-U.S. relationship, though the leaders of the two countries have said to reach the consensus to build a new type cooperative relationship. One main reason for this pessimism is that people have found a gap between what the US officials have said and what their actual policies and activities imply to the public.

To bridge this gap, both China and the U.S. need to think creatively, act substantially, in the spirit of mutual trust, equality and understanding so as to cultivate a mature relationship based on trust. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has pointed out recently that we should not only have the resolve and confidence to “climb to the top of the Great Wall”, but also the patience and wisdom of “crossing the river by feeling the stones” in order to shape a new type of relationship between China and the U.S. This ought to be the direction of the development of the China-U.S. relations in coming years.

 Wu Zhenglong is a research fellow at the China Foundation for International Studies.

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