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The ambiguous nature of the US-China relationship

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In Brief

As was to be expected, President Hu Jintao encountered increasing ambivalence among mainstream policy circles about the US relationship with China on his recent US state visit.

This is worth examination: US policy toward China has been remarkably consistent over the past 40 years. While originally conceived in a Cold War context, the fundamental thrust of that policy is to engage China and build equities for Beijing in a US-led international order in such a way as to (1) reduce Beijing’s interests in disrupting or challenging that order; and (2) encourage Beijing to contribute positively to the maintenance and strengthening of that order.


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The essence of this longstanding policy was articulated in 2005 by then Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick: that Washington seeks a China that is a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the international political and economic architecture. The basic tenet of this policy, of course, is the unquestioned assumption of US primacy in international affairs.

The United States, of course, is a highly pluralised society, and multiple interests shape American foreign policy. US policy toward China may continue to reflect the essential realism of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, but any US administration’s policy necessarily accounts for a wide range of views. The Obama administration therefore must account, in its policy toward Beijing, for the demands of American advocates for individual human rights and values, those concerned about China’s potential challenge to US military primacy in Asia, and those concerned about the US domestic impact of economic integration with China. The resulting policy may therefore seem schizophrenic to Chinese leaders: one that seeks simultaneously to draw China closer as a normative, strategic and economic partner while challenging Beijing’s management of domestic Chinese affairs; hedging against China’s potential emergence as a direct military opponent; and threatening disruption of bilateral economic ties.

The contrast between Beijing’s rather clear and unambiguous assertion of its core interests in dealing with the United States and Washington’s sometimes confused and contradictory articulation of its interests in dealing with China is marked. While China can readily state its primary foreign policy goals: international stability that preserves territorial integrity (that is, Tibet, Taiwan, etc.) and an international environment that enables domestic economic development (that is, open markets for trade), the United States is constrained in its ability to prioritise ‘core’ interests. Were the Obama administration to articulate any such hierarchy it would result in domestic political criticism from those whose issues were not primary or even excluded from the list. Thus, US goals appear ambiguous to Chinese analysts.

This ambiguity contributes to the phenomenon that both Beijing and Washington recognise as the most serious problem in the bilateral relationship: a lack of strategic trust. With Washington’s multifaceted, many-headed hydra of a China policy forcing Beijing into a multifaceted policy response, the two sides are left with basic questions about each other’s fundamental strategic intent. Earlier in the Obama administration, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg articulated a China policy based on ‘strategic reassurance.’ While that precise nomenclature may not have been adopted as the administration’s de jure policy, it does capture the administration’s sense that building trust about each side’s respective strategic intentions is a principal task of diplomatic engagement.

The Obama administration’s tactic to reduce strategic mistrust in bilateral diplomatic engagement has been to lessen the emphasis on purely bilateral issues and increase the emphasis on matters of global strategic importance. This focus on the role of the United States and China as partners in setting and managing a global agenda was initially mischaracterised by some as ‘the G2’: it doesn’t go that far by any means. However the thrust of the new diplomatic tactic has signaled an evolution of thinking about China’s international role. While the United States continues to pursue a policy in which it is the lead player in international economic, political and strategic governance, it now recognises that China is a considerable, if secondary, mover in that architecture.

The new emphasis on global matters in bilateral engagement assumed two criteria: (1) that China appreciates the importance of the existing international architecture (and US leadership therein) to its own domestic growth and international stature; and (2) that Beijing was willing to step beyond the Deng Xiaoping maxim that China should ‘lie low’ (稻光养晦) in international affairs and take an active leadership role in strengthening international institutions. This was a bold gambit, in that it required Beijing to accept that US leadership in global affairs is the best guarantor of China’s core interests, something Beijing has never conceded.

Given China’s status as the world’s second largest economy and major diplomatic player, Americans may view as natural its graduation from ‘free rider’ to ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the international architecture. Yet while many Chinese can accept and appreciate that a Pax Americana in the Asia Pacific region, as well as support from Washington for a rules-based, institutionalised approach to trade and economic integration, have played an important part in setting the table for China’s development since 1978, most Chinese also recognise that the United States, if it so chose, would also be the biggest single threat to core Chinese interests.

A positive Chinese response to US requests to become more active partners in leading international affairs is further complicated by two facts. First, many of the interests the United States is pursuing within the international architecture do not seem to China to be aligned with China’s interests (that is, US vs. Chinese approaches to climate change). Second, in the wake of the global economic crisis, the presumption of long-term US primacy is being questioned by many Chinese that view the United States now in a state of permanent decline.

The two sides are therefore at somewhat of an inflection point in their relationship. On the one hand, the United States is beginning to test whether its 40-year engagement policy has been successful: if China is unwilling to take on a more active role in supporting US goals within that order, then from an American perspective the policy may have reached the end of its useful life. On the other hand, from a Chinese perspective if US leadership and norms are not subject to scrutiny by participants in the international architecture, then the value of participation in a US-led order is inherently lessened.

With this background, one can examine the key security, economic, and normative (‘soft-power’) issues in the relationship and, in particular, try to understand what the United States wants from China, why, and what the two sides might do to manage expectations from one another on these issues going forward.

Charles W. Freeman III holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

This is an excerpt of the full memorandum. Read the full memorandum on the Freeman Chair’s website. This original paper was first published here on CogitAsia.

One response to “The ambiguous nature of the US-China relationship”

  1. I go back and forth about the merits of this period of globalization that we now live. History tells us that protectionism is not the answer even as we watch our manufacturing base in the US slowly die at the hands of the multinationals who pledge allegiance to maximizing profits only. How could it be any other way without campaign finance reform in Washington? What to do? Get big corporate money out of politics, invest in national infrastructure and specialized trade education for the masses of unemployed youth with useless degrees from countless universities. Let’s retool our values and get back to the real work that made this country great. Emmett Culligan

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