The future relationship between China and the United States is one of the mega-changes and mega-challenges of our age. China’s rise is the geopolitical equivalent of the melting polar ice caps: gradual change on a massive scale that can suddenly lead to dramatic turns of events. Can this defining trend of the 21st century be managed peacefully?
There is a predisposition in the public debate about the US-China relationship, on both sides of the Pacific, to believe that the two countries are now locked into some sort of irreversible and increasingly fractious zero-sum game. China’s gain by definition means America’s loss — or so the thinking goes — just as a US advance is seen as portending a consequential Chinese retreat.
The most recent manifestation of this phenomenon is the heated analysis over China’s inclusion in or exclusion from the 2016 Rim of the Pacific military exercise (RIMPAC), which involves units from 21 other Pacific countries and which the United States leads. The context for this debate is China’s land reclamation programme in the South China Sea in support of its territorial claims, and whether China’s inclusion in RIMPAC would be seen as simply sanctioning such actions.
The truth is, the political machinery of the China-US relationship — anchored in regular, working-level summitry between the two presidents and supported by the framework of the high-level meetings of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue and its subsidiary policy working groups — is functioning reasonably effectively.
Previously, both sides managed the relationship through a series of ad hoc side meetings at the margins of international fora — like the UN General Assembly, G20 summits or Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings — where the issues of the conference, or the particular political dramas of the day, tended to dominate. The crucial addition to this machinery, which Obama introduced within months of Xi assuming the presidency in 2013, is working-level summits, which cover both the most difficult and the more routine aspects of the relationship. This began with Sunnylands in June 2013, when the two leaders met for two days in a relatively casual setting. And it will continue in September 2015, when Xi arrives in Washington, DC, for a state visit that will also be a working summit.
Whoever becomes the next US president, regardless of views on China, he or she should ensure that this machinery sustains, through good seasons and bad. The central strategic significance of the US-China relationship should not be held hostage to the topic du jour, or even the crisis of the day.
In great power relations, boring is usually good. We should never forget the Confucian curse of legend: “May you live in interesting times!”
Lest I be accused of having a pollyannaish view of the difficulties facing the future of US-China relations, there is a long list of disagreements capable of derailing the relationship. These include Taiwan in all its contemporary dimensions, including the future of US arms sales to the self-governing island. They include the future management of territorial and other political disputes with Japan, one of America’s closest allies. And they include tensions over the North Korean nuclear weapons programme and the possibility of a collision between Chinese and foreign naval and air assets causing an international incident or crisis. Then there is the smorgasbord of complexity concerning conflicting claims in the South China Sea, including Chinese land reclamation efforts, at a time of closer US strategic engagement with most of the Southeast Asian claimant states.
We can recite the profound challenges to the relationship, which are legion, and throw our hands in the air, predicting gloom, doom, and general despair. Or we can do something about managing them, and even work toward resolving some of them.
Professional pessimism about the US-China relationship, or indeed about China itself, may be intellectually satisfying. But it does little to advance the practical diplomacy necessary in managing a relationship so fundamental to the great issues of our time: how to preserve peace and maintain stability, thereby providing the foundations for long-term economic prosperity and environmental sustainability for all — but in a manner that is sufficiently mindful of US and Chinese interests and values. This is far preferable than allowing strategic drift to set in — which may have a long-term trajectory of crisis, conflict, or even war.
And while doubting the strength and longevity of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may be intellectually satisfying for some, a more cautious and evidence-based view is that the CCP is likely to endure for the long-term, not least because no alternatives are on offer. The Chinese economic model is sustainable for the foreseeable future: Average annual growth will likely remain north of 6 percent for the next decade.
I therefore reject the latest fashion statement in American sinology — the economic collapse of China preceding its political implosion — as argued by David Shambaugh, an infinitely qualified sinologist. But on this occasion, his conclusions defy the evidence and are just plainly wrong. Furthermore, whatever reservations we may have about the Chinese political system, any policy predicated on an analytical assumption of Chinese collapse is dangerous: a triumph of aspiration and hope over analytical rigour and hard policy choices.
Many in China already believe that US policy is, in fact, to weaken China from within and to constrain Beijing’s options abroad. Xi’s China has deep reservations about the strategic intentions of the US towards their country. Beijing doesn’t believe that the US will happily surrender its current dominant position in the regional and global order and therefore concludes that Washington is actively pursuing a policy of containment to deny China international policy space. Chinese hardliners also conclude that this policy of containment abroad is matched by a parallel US policy of undermining the legitimacy of the CCP at home.
This deeply realist conclusion in Beijing about US policy is matched by Washington’s conclusions about China’s operational strategy in the region and the world. The United States concludes that China is actively pursuing a policy based on Xi’s statement that the people of Asia should manage Asian security. Washington also concludes that this, by definition, is designed to exclude the US and that the objective of Chinese operational strategy is to push the US out of the security architecture of the region, to be replaced with a Chinese sphere of influence across East Asia.
But, the prospect of armed conflict between China and the United States for the decade ahead remains remote. It is in neither country’s interests for this to occur. For China, it would derail the core mission of realizing the transformation of its economy, for which it needs sustained strategic stability. Furthermore, Chinese strategic planners have concluded that US military predominance, both regionally and globally, will continue for the foreseeable future.
But China will seek to expand its political and diplomatic influence across Asia, primarily through its formidable economic presence. There is already evidence of this through the dominance of Chinese trade, and soon investment flows, across the region — which the recently announced Chinese-led institutions, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Silk Road Fund, will likely enhance. Beyond Asia, China will also become increasingly active in the future reform of the global order. There is no evidence that Beijing has any intentions of fully revising — let alone replacing — institutions like the United Nations, which have served China’s interests well. Instead, China is likely to seek a stronger voice in the various ongoing reform processes of the system, and within each of the institutions, under the overall Chinese rubric of “greater multipolarity” and a “more democratic order” — as opposed to what China sees as an order based on the continuing assumption of the singularity of unilateral American power.
President Xi is significantly different from his predecessors. He wields more power individually than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. He has a clear political vision for the country: his “China Dream” has as its end point a “strong and powerful” Chinese state. He has ended former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy orthodoxy over the past 35 years of “hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead,” in favour of a more vigorous, activist and assertive international policy to advance Chinese interests both in the region and beyond. He speaks of a “new type of great power relations,” a “new type of international relations,” and “great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics.” He identifies a period of “extended strategic opportunity” for China’s rise, during which he wants to preserve the peace in order to focus on the completion of China’s economic transformation. Xi sees the strength of the Chinese economy in a growth-challenged world as China’s principal vehicle for extending its international influence.
Given these significant emerging divergences in Chinese and American views of the existing regional and global order, is a common strategic narrative between the two possible? Yes — within the framework of constructive realism, common purpose. “Realism” refers to those fundamental policy disagreements between the US and China — like arms sales to Taiwan — which cannot be resolved in the foreseeable future but which should be managed within a general protocol of not allowing any of these disagreements to destroy the relationship.
“Constructive” refers to the much longer list of policy areas — like the proposed bilateral investment treaty; expanded cooperation in strengthening the region’s thin security architecture to help manage regional tensions; and expanding the November 2014 agreement on climate change — where the two sides can make progress. These and other bilateral, regional and global cooperation projects, build step-by-step political capital, diplomatic ballast and strategic trust to help resolve some of the more intractable realist challenges.
As for “common purpose,” which entails building a stronger, sustainable international order that maximizes the provision of global public goods against the mounting number of global threats to the order itself — including global terrorism, cyber threats, pandemics and climate change.
A collective organizing principle, or common strategic narrative, for the overall relationship is now necessary. At present, we don’t have one. What we have instead is a silent strategic narrative against each other. A common strategic narrative that is capable of embracing both fundamental disagreements and substantive cooperation within the same overall framework — rather than having the latter permanently hostage to the resolution of the former — is needed.
These, of course, are only recommendations. The utility of such an approach is a matter for the governments themselves. And, it makes the ongoing utility of regular, working-level summitry all the more important for the long-term prospects of this relationship. After all, what happens between the United States and China affects the rest of the world as well.