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What China Recommends for the United States

by Elizabeth C. Economy
January 11, 2011

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) attends a State Dinner Reception with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 17, 2009.

U.S. President Barack Obama attends a State Dinner Reception with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 17, 2009. (Jim Young/Courtesy Reuters)

I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about what I would like to see China do to improve relations with the United States. Given the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to the United States next week,  I thought it might be interesting to see what some of my friends and colleagues across the Pacific recommend for U.S. policy towards China.  Let me begin by noting that there was far less written in this vein than I had anticipated…but here is a good sample of what I found:

1. Avoid aggressive and hawkish language on the issue of the South China Sea advocates People’s Daily columnist Li Hongmei. She argues that the South China Sea concerns China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and is therefore one of China’s “hot-buttoned issues.”  Li believes that if Washington can watch what it says, it will have more success in its strategic and economic agenda with Beijing. She would also like to see the United States show “more flexibility and sincerity” in how it handles North Korea. This flexibility, according to Li,  will  “ease North Korea’s stance, disarm it, and finally help achieve settlement expeditiously.”

2. Don’t pressure China on the issues of currency and the bilateral trade imbalance says Shi Yinhong, Director of the Center of American Studies at Renmin University in Beijing. While Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi sought common ground in his talks with US officials earlier this month, according to Shi, Yang’s efforts didn’t pay off across the board. “The U.S. side won’t waste any chance to pile on the pressure,” [on the trade and currency issues] thereby potentially causing “damage to the cooperative atmosphere before Hu’s visit.”

3. Seek to maximize Beijing’s and Washington’s shared interests argues Yuan Peng, head of American Studies at the  China Institute of Contemporary International Relations. Yuan sees opportunity for cooperation between China and the United States  in UN Security Council reform, the G-20, climate change and nuclear disarmament.

4. Reduce the natural assumption of a “U.S. conspiracy” in the Chinese society is the chief recommendation of an unsigned editorial in the Global Times. Since the United States has a stronger military, it should show “more sincerity.” Moreover, given the tradition of the United Staets “toppling more than a few countries through both hot and cold war” the burden of reducing suspicion rests on the Washington.

Of course, maybe there aren’t that many recommendations for the United States because the United States is already becoming a second-tier power. According to Jin Canrong, deputy Director of the School of International Studies at Renmin University, “the U.S. is in decline,” as evidenced by the major setbacks in major security issues with regard to North Korea and Iran, as well as the Middle East Peace talks.  For Jin,  the U.S. decline offers China an opportunity but also a responsibility “that China cannot easily handle.” His recommendation: China should recalibrate its ties with the United States to reflect this diminution in U.S. power and strengthen its ties with other actors in the Asia Pacific.

Post a Comment 9 Comments

  • Posted by blinde1

    A sound relationship with US is impossible, because US cannot tolerate any one that could potentially challenge its global hegemony position. To prevent this to happen, US will use all tools, militarily, economically, diplomatically. US’ containment strategy, flaring up China’s neighbors with disputes over contested territories, supporting and encouraging separatist activities, nuclear collaboration with India, using global warming and trade imbalance to pressure China, etc, etc, all serve the same goal – to break up China before it grows too strong. It is insane and waste of time and energy trying to make US a friend. US is absolutely untrustable, period.

  • Posted by Wim Roffel

    The US is behaving like a tiny despot who punishes everything that even remotely looks like an insult.

    A good example is North Korea. Too long the US has considered its below its dignity to coordinate its policies with China. This, combined with a lack of consistency, made a solution nearly impossible.

    Another example is Kosovo. The Kosovo War was not necessary (the Rambouillet talks failed because the US asked much more than just better treatment of the Albanians). Similarly, the Ahtisaari negotiations that preceded Kosovo’s unilateral independence declaration failed because the US had handicapped them with a lot of “principles” that favored the Albanian side.

    The problem with this behavior is that it is not a very effective way of conducting diplomacy and even when it works it often backfires: see for example the war in Iraq or the corrupt criminals that now rule Kosovo. As the US supremacy decreases the problems with this approach increase.

  • Posted by Ying

    The U.S behaves just like any other superpower would regardless of who they are. China would behave in a very similar way if faced with the same problems.

    It is the very nature of international politics. Any superpower would strive to maintain its hegemonic status through any means necessary.

    It is not as simple as a matter of trust but rather a matter of survival. China is the greatest threat to U.S dominance and you have to expect the U.S to act accordingly.

    I believe it is important to point out that U.S foreign policy over the decades has been influenced by various administrations and we should recognise this before categorising all U.S policy under one heading.

  • Posted by larry morgan

    Well of course, China:
    1. Considers any language on the South China Sea issue as aggressive and hawkish;
    2. Rejects any pressure on its longstanding understanding undervalued currency and bilateral trade imbalance;
    3. Wants to maximize Beijing-Washington shared interests, to the exclusion of Washington interests; and
    4. In fact fuels the “US conspiracy” image in Chinese society.

    What the US must impress upon China is the need for China to accommodate its growing international stature with actions that strengthen cooperation with its neighbors, increase diligence to contain North Korean belligerence, recognize the long term negative implications of its protectionist trade policies, and increase transparency in government.

  • Posted by James Zhang

    A path of confrontation that will ultimately lead to a showdown between the U.S. and China is hopelessly inevitable unless either China chooses to give up its great power aspirations and subordinate its national interests to accommodate those of the U.S., or the U.S. concedes to the ever-growing demands and challeges posed by a rising China, either way is predictably unlikely.

    In the course of human history which witnesses the rise and fall of great powers, no rising powers have ever managed to arrive at the top peacefully without a fight, often pretty bloody and destructive fight, except perhaps the U.S. itself whose rise to great power status was acquiesced by Great Britain at a time when the power and influence of that Empire were racing downward to the bottom. As long as the confiuration of the international system remains the same, zero-sum game will forever be the the only game that great powers play in their interactions with one another. And no great power can and is willing to escape from that game. “Yi Shan Bu Rong Er Hu” (One hill can not accommodate two tigers.)

  • Posted by Gringo Capet

    The key questions for Hu and Obama to address, if not answer, are:

    Will the USA seek to persuade China to conform to American and allied expectations of conduct, or will the two powers work out a mutually-agreed relationship based on an equality of stature and responsibility?

    Will the USA pursue perpetual primacy on the strength of military force for which the necessary economic resources may no longer be assured, or will it adapt itself to a world in which a series of secondary powers will genuinely share global security management responsibilities with it?

    Will China stop acting like the perennial victim and acknowledge that power brings corresponding responsibilities, or seek to subvert America’s systemic dominance by technical and tactical economic and military innovation?

    Will America continue to subvert China’s unelected authoritarian statist regime and seek to shape it in America’s own liberal-democratic-capitalist image, or accept that China will find its own path to the future, evolving along courses charted by its own dynamic domestic actors, and treat China the way it does, for instance, Saudi Arabia?

    Will China consider the importance of protecting the planet from such global, non-traditional, threats to security as climate change, piracy (maritime and intellectual), terrorism, trafficking and international crime, and act collaboratively with key players and multinational bodies?

    Will America persist in fashioning a ring of steel around China with Mongolia, Japan, Taiwan, ASEAN (leaving out Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos), Australia, and India, and will the latter countries join this containment effort with equal vigour?

    Will China continue to assert its contested maritime/territorial claims with as much energy as seen in 2010, deepening anxieties, and generating defensive pressures for joining America’s ring of steel, or utilise instruments such as the DOC to resolve these issues and relieve tension?

    Will the USA and China recognise the primacy of the economic in the globalised world, appreciate the semi-symbiotic nature of Sino-US financial/commercial/economic dynamics, and collaborate to sustain the health of this relationship, and thereby protect the global economy as well?

    And, finally, will the USA view China’s almost inevitable ‘rise’ through a zero-sum prism (ignore the occasionally emollient declaratory nonsense emanating from Washington) or accept that apart from its military supremacy – other necessary factors such as a global acceptance of its moral authority, and a robust economic base on which to build fungible power – have eroded sufficiently for other powers (say, the BRICs) to start playing a genuine role in systemic management terms?

    As a corollary, will the USPACOM continue to treat all Pacific and Indian Ocean waters just beyond the 12nm territorial limits as its exclusive preserve, as it has done, or will America only encourage others to adhere to the letter – and the spirit – of the UNCLOS after Washington itself signs up to it?

    In sum, we are in the midst of transitional turbulence. Will the current (but rapidly, if relatively, eroding) hegemon seek to turn the tide of history and rebuild its unipolar primacy in the honest belief that the American national interest is tantamount to global interest, or concede its unique ‘special’ nature and truly embrace the system as a leading player?

    Obama and Hu will not be able to answer these questions; nor will their articulate acolytes. But having termed the imminent visit as ‘historic’, the two sides need to demonstrate enough intellectual honesty and courage to lay the issues out for discussion. Can they do it? Will they do it? We’ll need to wait and watch.

  • Posted by Neil

    USA is the greatest threat to world peace. It’s best if USA pursues an isolationist policy by withdrawing itself to within its border and never again to set a toe outside of the border.

  • Posted by Henry Jackson

    Ms. Economy stated in her CFR article one key issue in China-U.S. relations.
    Everything hinges on what the U.S does or fails to do. First and foremost the U.S. must get its economy on track.

    Here are some thoughts that Ms. Economy did not mention in her article. If the U.S. does not get its fiscal house in order we risk further erosion of our so called superpower hegemony. The U.S. economy is too vulnerable to China. China holds close to a trillion dollars of our U.S. treasury debt and they hold key equity positions in many U.S. companies. There is cntinued discussion of replacing the dollar as the world reserve currency. Many people talk of mutual cooperation but in politcs mutual cooperation must be accompanied by being honest where your country is versus the other country your attempting to do business with. In the case of the United states and China, the U.S. must realize that to approach China in a matter that ignores the United States declining hegemony status is a recipe for disaster.

  • Posted by Elizabeth Economy

    Thanks for all the thoughtful commentary. Gringo Capet, in particular, I think has set out a series of important issues, culminating in a key question concerning whether the United States will be able to embrace the system as a leading player. As other powers–not just China– take a more active role in shaping new rules of the game, will the U.S. accommodate or fight the process? I think the jury is still out, but my guess is that it will be a tough transition. As Ying suggests, different U.S. administrations conduct foreign policy differently. If there were ever a time for the United States to embrace a more pluralistic approach to establishing global norms, this would probably be it. At the same time it does seem to me that we tend to inflate the past capacity of the United States to act successfully unilaterally to set global norms. Others have generally been at the table–and if they’re not, we don’t tend to get what we want. I think both U.S. hegemonic power–and as a corollary its erosion–are likely overstated.

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