A Historic Opportunity to Establish a New Type of Great Power Relationship between China and the United States
Ruan Zongze, Vice CIIS President
Barack Obama’s re-election as President and the successful convention of the Chinese Communist Party’s eighteenth National Party Congress have provided an opportunity for China and the United States to open a new chapter and follow a new path in Sino-U.S. relations. The key for seizing this opportunity lies in a good start and smooth transition of the relationship; this must be free from complications in order to build a new type of relationship of major powers featuring cooperation and a win-win situation. China and the United States should work to be able to share a “Pacific Century.”
As it ushers in the second decade of the 21st century, the world is at historical juncture. The international situation has become extremely complex: the shadow of the international financial crisis has not dissipated, the risk of a global economic downturn remains severe; and international and regional flashpoints, climate change, energy security, food security, resource security and other cross-border issues are intertwined and superimposed over one another. The rise of emerging powers and the shift of world wealth and power are helping international relations adapt to a flatter world: the emerging powers are increasingly becoming the protagonists in the international arena, playing an increasingly important role and at the same time, of course, facing up to more international responsibilities.
Historically speaking, it is difficult to answer whether a rising power and an established power can get along with each other. The history of international relations has shown that when emerging powers have approached or exceeded the established powers in strength, their relationship enters a volatile, unstable period. During this period, the two might feel a lot of pressure from each other and become particularly sensitive to each other’s move. Differences in political systems and historical stages of development can also feed mutual distrust. In the United States, some people think that China has stolen Americans’ “rice bowls” and, as China has become the world’s second largest economy, China will sooner or later challenge America’s primary position in the world. In the eyes of these people, China’s success has been achieved at the expense of regular Americans, hence there are widespread calls for containment and sanctions against China.
In the latest U.S. presidential election, the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates made many seemingly tough remarks on China. The third and final round of the U.S. presidential debates made, as a rare choice, one of its segments focus on “the rise of China and tomorrow’s world.” China is often cited as a factor affecting the U.S. economic recovery, growth and employment, and China has been asked to follow “the rules all others follow.” China has become a domestic policy issue in the U.S. and China-bashing has unfortunately often turned out to be a substitute for real solutions to America’s domestic problems.
However, the world is changing, and so are the United States and China. What will this new change imply for Sino-U.S. relations? The development of Sino-U.S. relations calls for innovative thinking. It is a historical responsibility to properly handle relations between the two countries; the key lies in a joint search for a new model of interaction so as to break the vicious circle of zero-sum competition between big powers and provide new public goods to the world.
The future of the Sino-U.S. relationship draws global attention and touches upon the nerves of the world. A proper handling of the relationship will be a blessing to the world, and improper handling could equally become a scourge. China and the United States are unlikely to become allies, but if they become engaged in conflicts with each other, the consequences could be disastrous. Unexpectedly close, intertwined interests made possible by globalization have made confrontation between the two countries even more costly. If the U.S. tries to gang up on China like it did the Soviet Union, everyone would suffer greatly.
In this regard, China has proactively proposed that the two countries establish a new type of relations between great powers, all in the belief that the Pacific is large enough to accommodate a rising China as well as the United States. This requires China and the United States to avoid a zero-sum game featuring historical relations between big powers jostling for hegemony by force. The two countries should break the “tragedy of great power politics” and instead embark on a road toward a new type of relations among major powers, a road that features long-term stability, mutual benefit and peaceful competition.
One of the notable features of the current Sino-U.S. relationship is its increasing global significance: bilateral discussions now cover a whole range of issues (bilateral, regional, international), and more time and efforts have been devoted to discussions of international and regional issues. The two sides should seize this historic opportunity to build strategic mutual trust and properly manage their differences. China does not seek to rival the United States in Asia but instead to live in peace with the United States. The United States, accordingly, should not gang up on or try to suppress China, creating a split in the Asia Pacific.
In its high-profile “return” to or “rebalancing” of Asia, the U.S. deliberately plays up the so-called “China threat,” intervenes in South China Sea disputes, and has intensified programs to integrate its deployment of forces in the Asia-Pacific region, especially in the Western Pacific, including strengthening military relations with its allies and partners, such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Australia. It has opened up new military bases, deployed advanced aircrafts, expanded its military presence, held more and more large-scale military exercises, sold more weapons, and also planned to build a missile defense system. Of course, all these moves are also intended to enhance its control over its allies. Regardless, a series of reckless actions taken by the United States has stunned the world and put Asian countries, in particular, in an awkward position: on the one hand, they would like to do business with China, sharing the dividends of regional economic development; but on the other hand, they face pressure from the United States to balance China in terms of security. This has created repeated waves and storms in the Asia-Pacific region, which is otherwise calm and peaceful.
In the face of accelerated globalization and regionalization, no country can remain immune to these effects – moreover, the security and prosperity that they usher in can benefit all. Any attempt to exclude China is not only anachronistic but also bound to fail. China is not the former Soviet Union and is not seeking to overthrow the existing international system. On the contrary, China has engaged in Reform and Opening in order to adapt itself to the current international system. China is no longer a bystander or opponent of the international system; instead it has become a participant and a builder of the international system. China is now a stakeholder in the current international system. China pursues a strategy of peaceful development and strives internally for development of its people’s livelihood and externally for betterment of relations with its neighbors.
As far as China is concerned, it must be more proactive in shaping the future of Sino-U.S. relations rather than passively adapting to changing ties. In recent years, China has actively voiced its own concerns and expectations during dialogues with the United States. For example, China has demanded that the U.S. stop its warships and aircrafts from engaging in frequent offshore reconnaissance directed against China; abolish restrictions on high-tech exports to China; recognize China’s market economy status; provide a fair environment for investment so that Chinese enterprises can invest freely in the United States; and help make China’s direct investment in the U.S. more smooth. These practical requests have made the dialogues more substantial and the give-and-take has become more balanced.
This year, 2012, is the 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s visit to China and the issuance of the “Shanghai Communiqué.” History and reality tell us that for China and the United States, peace and cooperation will benefit all sides, while confrontation will hurt both. As each other’s second largest trade partners, China and the U.S. have converging interests with broad prospects for growth and huge potential for cooperation. Facing a sluggish world economic recovery and an expanding European debt crisis, China and the United States, as the world’s two largest economies, have a shared responsibility to make concerted efforts to deal with global challenges. This has become a shared expectation of the international community to see Sino-U.S. cooperation in this regard.