Recently, I made two respective trips to Washington D.C. Before and after President Hu Jintao`s state visit to the U.S. in January 2011. During my stay in D.C., I had opportunities to meet friends from various universities, thinking tanks and government institutions, and exchanged views with them on US-China Relations.
Almost all of the friends I met in D.C. gave high marks to President Hu`s state visit, believing that this visit was of great significance. The meaning of his visit could be summarized into 3 “stones”: milestone, cornerstone and touchstone.
By milestone, it means that Hu`s visit left another important landmark in the development of U.S.-China relations after Deng`s visit in 1979 and Jiang`s visit in 1997. By cornerstone, it suggests the new important consensus reached between two sides in the 41-point joint statement, that is to built up cooperative partnership on the basis of mutual respect, mutual benefit and win-win results. By touchstone, it stresses that this is an important testing period for U.S.-China relations, and the crucial thing of future Sino-U.S. relations lies in whether the two countries can build up mutual strategic trust.
Hu`s visit was not only important, but also timely. It provided a strong and positive message of “recovery” of Sino-U.S. relations. It was a clear indicator that the mutual relationship was again put back to the normal track, and resumed its normal control and management. Furthermore, Hu`s visit also provided new momentum for the future development of Sino-U.S. relations. During my meeting with a high-ranking official from US State Department, he spoke highly of Hu`s visit as being unprecedentedly successful: sending off positive messages, adding more stable factors and injecting into new momentum. At the US state department, I was arranged to meet Mrs. Carola McGiffert who is in charge of the “100,000 Strong Program”. The program was first announced by President Obama in Shanghai when he visited China in Nov. 2009, and was then written into the joint statement during Hu`s visit to the USA. Talking about the plan of sending 100,000 American students to China within 4 years, Mrs McGiffert said to me that “we are planting seeds for better US-China relations in the future”.
We have every reason to believe that Hu`s visit greatly helped usher in a new turning-point for Sino-U.S. relations: passing the bad year of 2010 and greeting the good days ahead.
Nevertheless, the key question lying ahead is how both sides would view each other through strategic framework.
1. In the past over 30 years, China has undergone the greatest transformations in its history. Its hard power and soft power have grown stronger than ever before. China has become No. 2 economy in terms of GDP. For years, China has been gaining its momentum for peaceful rise. At home, China is focusing on the building-up of a harmonious society, and abroad China is joining efforts with other countries for building up a harmonious world by adopting a more positive, pragmatic and peaceful (3P) foreign policy. Unfortunately, all this is misinterpreted by some people in the USA as being arrogant, assertive and aggressive (3A). Ever worse than that, they hold that China`s rise poses a threat to the U.S.
Does China`s rise pose a threat to the U.S.A.? During our discussions, a lot of American friends expressed their disagreement with the China threat notion. Someone told me that the China threat notion is cold war mentality, and it`s time to cast it away. We need a new framing of thinking: Cooperation is the theme of U.S.-China relations; U.S.-China relations should be handled in the spirit of dialogue and not confrontation, competition and not hostility. Another friend from the state Department said to me that living with a rapidly-rising China is a test that the USA has never had before. There are a couple of policy options: to contain China as it did in the cold war period has been proved to be outdated; to engage and hedge China as it has been doing since the end of the cold war, not effective; to forge a cooperative partnership is the only proper option because the U.S. and China share common interests, take common responsibilities and face common challenges in the 21st century. During our meetings, I also told my American friends that China`s rise is inevitable, and China`s rise is in peace, by peace and for peace. The witty-gritty is that through peaceful rise, China wants to make a case the peaceful rise of a big country can be achieved and can contribute to world progress and prosperity. I further elaborated to my American friends that China`s rise does not and will not pose a threats to the USA.
From the strategic point of view, peaceful rise is the goal of China’s strategic period of opportunities. China attaches great importance to Sino-U.S. relations because a good and stable bilateral relationship is necessary for the realization of China’s peaceful rise. Whereas a bad and unstable mutual relationship will reverse China`s peaceful rise and damage the whole process. The USA is now undergoing a strategic period of adjustment. Since “9?11”, American strategy has been focused on fighting against terrorism and preventing proliferation of the weapons of massive destruction. The USA also welcomes China’s participation and cooperation. The two strategic periods (China’s strategic period of opportunities and the U.S. strategic period of adjustments) overlap and provide new incentives for strategic consensus between China and the USA on international issues.
2. The U.S has experienced several waves of strategic readjustments since the end of the cold war. Regardless of these readjustments, American leading position and hegemonic gesture still remain unchanged. In the past over two years, the Obama Administration obviously shifted its focus of anti-terrorism from Iraq to Afghanistan. Together with other diplomatic and military maneuvers, the gravity of U.S. post-cold war strategy is now moving to Asia. Some people name it as “U.S. reengagement in Asia”, others called it “U.S. returning to Asia”, which turned out to be not accurate because the U.S. has never left Asia. It`s understood that in China, the reaction is complicated. People can easily justify that U.S. reengagement in Asia is directly against china, and it is a new move of the U.S. to encircle China.
Does U.S. reengagement in Asia serve to encircle China? During our meetings, my American friends told me how geographically important Asia is to the USA, and how Asia was neglected in U.S. foreign strategy during the Bush Administration. Now it’s time to readdress the issue and put more weight to the area so as to better balance U.S. policies toward the Middle East, Europe and Asia. Therefore, the reengagement is not directed against China and not to encircle China. One friend highlighted U.S. Asia policy as follows: to strengthen good relations with its allies (Japan, South Korean, Australia and New Zealand), to make up new friends (India, Indonesian, Vietnam and Malaysia), to forge multiple regimes such as TPP(Trans-Pacific Partnership)and to develop positive, cooperative and comprehensive relations with China. The composition of U.S. asia policy shows that to encircle China is not its purpose. I think those views from my American friends should be appreciated, but how to make them convincing still remains an issue.
3. Now it seems that the whole discussion is returning to the beginning of this part: The centerpiece of Sino-U.S. relations is how to view each other strategically.
If the US views China`s rise as its threat and China views U.S. reengagement in Asia as encirclement, then the outcome could be disastrous. It could lead Sino-U.S. relations to new confrontation. This outcome does not conform to the trends of the post-cold war era (e.g. peace, development and cooperation), and it is not in common interests of both China and the U.S either. Both sides should try to prevent this outcome from being the reality.
Some progress has been made. The significance of the reciprocal visits by President Obama in Nov. 2009 and President Hu in Jan. 2011 is that they reach important consensus on the centerpiece of Sino-U.S. relations. The two respective joint statements emphasize that the U.S. would like to see a strong, stable and prosperous China, whereas China welcomes the U.S., as an Asia-Pacific country, to play a constructive role on regional and global issues. The two statements also set up as the future goal positive, cooperative and comprehensive relations in the 21st century.
In order to implement the two joint statements, a learning process is required: the USA should give up cold-war mentality and learn how to accommodate a rising China, and China should continuously keep up low profile and learn how to avoid misjudgments of U.S. strategic changes, The key to it is to enhancing mutual strategic trust through more contacts, dialogues and cooperation.
Ni Shixiong is professor at Center for American Studies, Fudan University