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Foreign Policy

Whither the China-US Relations?

Sep 25 , 2013
  • Chen Jimin

    Associate Research Fellow, CPC Party School

Since 2009, the Obama administration has gradually adjusted the U.S. strategic layout in the Asia-Pacific region. As a result, there are many different statements on the US strategic transformation in the Chinese media, academic field, such as “return to Asia”, “pivot to Asia”, “Asia-Pacific rebalance”. These statements are basically stemmed from the different expressions made by the U.S. decision-makers, which shows that the Chinese elites always keep an eye on the U.S. Asia-Pacific strategy. Many Chinese people believe that the implementation of Obama’s new Asia-Pacific strategy has brought profound impacts on the China-US relations, mainly the negative effects with the manifestation of the increasing misunderstanding and suspicion as well as the uncertainties for the development of Sino-US relations. Consequently, there is a view in both countries that the two countries would ultimately go to strategic confrontation. Is it really so pessimistic for the future of China-US relations? How to assess the development of Sino-US relations? Indeed, there are many variables to influence the development of Sino-US relations, but fundamentally depending on the two aspects: strategic intentions and strategic capabilities. 

What are the strategic intentions for the U.S. and China? 

For the United States, its strategic intention is to maintain and safeguard the hegemony, which has not changed since the end of the Cold War. In 1992, the U.S. Department of Defense released a report “Prevent the Re-emergence of a New Rival” stated “Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival”. After the Obama administration came to power, this strategic intention became more intense, just as President Obama stressed that the world needs American leadership, “I do not accept second place for the United States of America”. Therefore, the U.S. has always been on a high alert and kept a watchful eye on any country, which has the potential to challenge its hegemony. China is taken as an important competitor. Thus, the important feature of U.S. China policy is hedging strategy of engagement and precaution. Overall, the core word of the U.S. strategy toward China is “shaping” China, that is, encouraging China’s involvement in the international system while influencing China’s development direction and process as the U.S. expects. Certainly, the strategy does not mean the U.S. regards China as an enemy, but the United States indeed guards against China. 

As for China, its strategic intentions focus on the domestic development, which has not changed since the implementation of reform and opening-up policy. On September 6, 2011, the Information Office of the State Council published a white Paper China’s Peaceful Development, which clearly stated: “To achieve modernization and common prosperity for the people is the overall goal of China’s pursuit of peaceful development.” Obviously, China’s foreign policy and international strategy are bound to obey and serve the overall goal. Indeed, with the expansion of China’s overseas interests, and the increasing comprehensive national strength, the objectives of China’s foreign policy become more diversified. The core principle of China’s international strategy, however, has not changed. China has no intention to export ideology and seek world hegemony; neither to change nor subvert the current international order. China regards itself as the participant, builder and contributor of international system. China encourages the improvement of the existing international system, rather than to change it. Obviously, China’s strategic intention is mainly “inward-looking” while America’s “outward-looking”. Thus, there is no intersection for their strategic intentions. 

What are the strategic capabilities for the U.S. and China? 

Regarding their capabilities in economy, military, technology, innovation or the capability to attract the talents, the U.S. has an absolute competitive advantage. Take the economy; It is undeniable that the current U.S. economic situation is in bad condition, but not worse, as many expected. According to the data released by World Bank, the U.S. GDP growth rate in 2012 reached 2.2 percent, while 0.7%, 0%, 0.3%, 1.9% for Germany, France, UK, Japan respectively. The U.S. share of the total world GDP accounted for nearly 22% in 2012. Compared with the peak 27% in 1950, there is no big change. 

As for China, the rapid economic development in past 10 years attracted the world attention, which put China as the second largest economy. During this time, space technology, military modernization and some other fields related to the enhancement of national power have also made great strides. However, from the comparative point of view, the gap between China and the United States is obvious. Take China’s economic achievements. Compared with the share of U.S. GDP, China’s GDP jumped from 17.9% in 2005 to nearly 52.8% in 2012. But China’s per capita GDP is still far behind the United States’ with $ 6,091 and $ 49,965 respectively, which is about 12% of the U.S. per capita. Moreover, it is a critical period for China’s reform and development. There are many challenges such as “middle income trap” to test China’s upcoming economic development and social harmony, which brings China’s economic prospects more uncertainties. 

Clearly, China has no intentions or capabilities to challenge or threaten the U.S. primacy. It is not necessary for the U.S. to contain China. Neither China nor the United States wants the other to become a real strategic adversary. Thus, both parties should take the positive attitude towards each other. Of course, it does mean there are no differences and contradictions between the two countries, neither should we ignore them. But the key issue for the relations is to go forward. Therefore, managing and controlling differences, enhancing mutual understanding, fostering mutual trust, expanding common interests are the main focus and orientation for the current and long-term China-U.S. relations. 

Chen Jimin, Ph.D, is an Assistant Research Fellow for the Institute for International and Strategic Studies at the Party School of Central Committee of C.P.C.

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