Just days after President Xi Jinping ended his state visit to the United States, the Obama Administration announced the conclusion of the TPP negotiation. The U.S. military announced there would be more actions in the South China Sea targeting China. Apparently, the challenges facing China-U.S. relations will not disappear simply because of one presidential meeting. There will still be times when they get upset by the other decisions. Beijing and Washington need to think of ways to translate the important agreements reached at the top level into reality, and stop the relationship from slipping into strategic confrontation.
The concept of “new model of major-country relationship” proposed by Beijing got a cold response from many in the U.S. foreign policy circles. Some even appealed to the Obama Administration to completely reject it. Last July, at a congressional hearing on the South China Sea, Andrew S. Erickson said, “Two particularly problematic formulations favored by Beijing (and their variants) must be banished from the lexicon of American official discourse: ‘The Thucydides Trap’ and ‘New-Type Great Power Relations.’” Such sentiments, especially those from the younger generation of policy makers and analysts, have got Beijing’s attention.
It is interesting to note the generational difference among American experts on China. This is an important factor which can have an impact on the future trend of China-U.S. relations. Seasoned diplomats and scholars such as Stapleton Roy, Kenneth Lieberthal and David Lampton represent the generation who witnessed how China left behind its anger and isolation of the Mao era in the 1970s, and integrated itself into the global community. But Andrew S. Erickson belongs to the younger generation which knows China as an emerging power. His generation includes Abraham Denmark, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia, and Ely Ratner, Deputy National Security Adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.
The younger generation might not be familiar with what China was like more than 30 years ago, but they sure have seen how China has changed in the past ten, or even three years. They tend to be much more hardline in dealing with China. Whatever China does, they see it in the context of the rise of a big power and power politics. China, in their eyes, is a 21st-century version of Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union.
On the other hand, to many in China, the definition of “major country” or “great power” remains the same as it was in the 20th or even 19th century. However, with the passage of time, that definition needs to be, and is being, rewritten. Restraint and cooperation rather than trying to defeat one another in the battlefield is the only way to ensure shared success and prosperity for all big countries. Turning the South China Sea into its own “lake” will only thwart China’s rise. In this day and age, it would be a mistake for China to embrace the concept of “sea power” established by 19th-century Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan. The United States needs to wake up to the reality that the primacy it has enjoyed in the Asia-Pacific in the past few decades will not last forever. It must remember that responsibility-sharing can only be achieved through power-sharing.
Beijing and Washington need to keep the focus on “new model” instead of “major country/great power.” This “new model” of relationship between China and the United States is crucial to tackling 21st-century challenges such as cyber security and climate change. When it comes to cyber or climate issues, frankly speaking, there is a lack of knowledge, ability and experience on both sides. Many officials are still unfamiliar with a world connected through the Internet. They need to be more patient in order to understand the issues at hand and find real solutions instead of getting confrontational whenever they disagree. Secondly, addressing these challenges requires input from non-state actors. There needs to be a more effective and broad-based policy-making network that involves cyber and climate experts. Thirdly, officials should be better at explaining the complexity of those issues to the public, rather than feeding them with over-simplified answers.
While in the United States, President Xi Jinping met with business leaders from the IT sector, including Microsoft, Apple and Facebook, and made an unequivocal commitment that the Chinese government does not support any form of commercial cyber espionage. China and the United States agreed to establish a working mechanism at a higher level on cyber security disputes and explore international rule-making for the cyberspace. Such progress gives people hope that the “new model” is getting more substance. Just several years back, Beijing and Washington were still in a bitter argument over climate change. Today, however, China-U.S. cooperation on climate change has become a highlight in bilateral cooperation and led global efforts on that subject. There is a possibility that cyber security could become the next success story of China-U.S. cooperation.
To ignore the concept of “new model of major-country relationship” would be unwise and irresponsible. “Non-confrontation” is not just in Beijing’s interest. The “new model” is essential to achieving competitive coexistence between China and the United States. The two sides need to work together to avoid “the Thucydides Trap,” but the complexities of China-U.S. relations apparently go much beyond this simple phrase. By now, Washington ought to have seen Beijing’s commitment from its subtle but steady efforts to work through differences. During President Xi’s visit, the two sides reached new consensus on reform of the international economic governance mechanisms and started building a tangible global development partnership. This “new model” has begun to cover areas of cooperation from peace-keeping, counterterrorism and public health to wildlife protection.
The bottom line is, if the decision-makers of China and the United States are able to nurture a new strategic mindset that are well adapted to 21st-century global affairs and be more dedicated to this “new model,” there will be a real possibility that Beijing and Washington can avoid the “old game” of major-country conflict.