China unveils a series of short publicity films showcasing China's national image in New York City's Times Square in January 2011 (XINHUA)
In the wake of China's ascension during the 1980s and 1990s, some in the United States began to doubt China's intentions with regard to external affairs. That same cadre has interpreted China's diplomatic headway in recent years in attempt to realize de-dollarization in the global economy, to squeeze out U.S. influence in Asia and to openly confront the superpower in the areas of both cyberspace and outer space.
In the meantime, Washington's China thinking has been shadowed by an almost universal feeling of disappointment across political, business and the academic circles. More and more U.S. policy elites seem to think that China's domestic reform has been derailed, dashing their hopes for some sort of convergence of values between the two countries.
Washington's engagement policy toward China, maintained over eight presidential tenures, is also being called into question. A recent report published in U.S. monthly National Interests by senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations Robert Blackwill and Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has claimed: "Because the American effort to 'integrate' China into the liberal international order has now generated new threats to U.S. primacy in Asia—and could result in a consequential challenge to American power globally—Washington needs a new grand strategy toward China that centers on balancing the rise of Chinese power rather than continuing to assist its ascendancy."
For China, Washington's erection of barriers to the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) initiative, its inflammatory behavior with regard to the South China Sea disputes and its exclusion of China from the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) negotiations have all affected China's core strategies. These moves have been interpreted as proof positive that Washington is implementing a containment policy toward China. As Chinese people are possessed of pride regarding their nation's development, affronts by outside forces have the propensity to reawaken their historically based siege mentality, posing further obstacle for the development of China-U.S. relations and China's further international integration.
At a seminar on May 6, Professor David Lampton at Johns Hopkins University, a renowned China hand, claimed that China-U.S.
relations "unfortunately have changed dramatically since about 2010. The tipping point is near." He also declared "we are witnessing the erosion of some critical underlying supports for predominantly positive U.S.-China ties."
Some senior officials and strategy scholars have pinned their hopes on the emergence of a new approach to relations between major powers, one which would avoid the exacerbation of strategic dissonance between the two countries. Washington is, however, apparently playing down the China-proposed concept, trying to avoid giving its Asia-Pacific allies any impression that Beijing has gained an equal footing with it or that the two powers will reapportion their respective spheres of influence within the Western Pacific region. Despite the fact that the United States has stressed several times that strengthening China-U.S. ties is a central component of its "Pivot to Asia" policy, its top priority appears to be reinforcing its dominance in the region on the basis of its alliance with regional countries.
The new type of relations between major countries, featuring cooperation, the joint safeguarding of peace and development, reform of international institutions and the construction of a fair, just and rational international order, would posit an ideal state for China-U.S. relations under present conditions. However, the relationship between China and the United States does not necessarily have to meet this ideal in order to succeed. If both countries hold to stirring no conflict or confrontation, and try to avoid bilateral relations from sliding into an antagonistic state as has happened with the United States and some other countries in the past, it could also be seen as a win for this concept.
The crucial problem with the concept lies in the fact that it attempts to concretely define what remains in flux. It terms the still evolving China-U.S. relationship as relations taking place between an emerging power and an established power, which inadvertently caters to the sense of national crisis in the latter as well as to its competitive psychology. Thus, certain parties in the United States have started to believe that the China-initiated concept is some manner of trick or ploy to undermine and eventually overturn the U.S. leadership.
Another inherent risk is the exaggerated rhetoric of both Beijing and Washington concerning one another. Political discussion in Washington is suffused with the ideas of "China threat" and "China challenge" while Beijing is being influenced by talk of "U.S. containment" and "U.S. conspiracy."
To prevent this mentality from dominating bilateral relations, Lampton suggests that China and the United States need to begin what admittedly will be a lengthy process by which the two countries can, along with others, create inclusive economic and security institutions regionally and adapt post-World War II global and regional institutions to the new distribution of power in the world and across the Asia-Pacific. In a recent article by Professor Wang Jisi, former President of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies of Peking University, he argued that "only if the U.S. respects—and does not challenge—China's basic political system and the rule of the Communist Party will it be able to persuade China to do the same vis-a-vis America's position of leadership in the world."
But the "long process" advocated is not sufficient to neutralize deeply embedded issues such as the South China Sea disputes and cyberattacks. Scholars and officials, as well as former officials from both countries have appealed en masse to keep China-U.S. relations on track. Specifically speaking, the two countries should strengthen communication, manage disagreements, prevent risks from escalating to conflicts. More broadly, the pair should work together to hedge against the risk of bilateral relations spiraling downward due to vicious competition.
The policy elites in both countries are fully aware that the fundamentals of China-U.S. relations remain the same. But what has changed is their perception of one another. For the two countries, there is no question of one side swallowing up the other. It has not taken place in the past nor will it happen in the future. If the United States overexaggerates the challenge China poses to it—even for the sake of creating a national sense of impending crisis in a bid to boost its innovation capabilities, there is a risk of the latter mistakenly perceiving the former as hostile, thus creating a very dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy for bilateral relations. Meanwhile, if China assertively holds that the United States is on a track of irreversible decline while reveling in the perceived significance of "the China model" to the future international order, the seeds of further mistrust and acrimony will have been sown.
Given this state of affairs, President Xi Jinping's upcoming visit to the United States holds great promise. It is eminently possible that the two countries will ink more deals that will bolster their cooperation in areas such as climate change, trade and military management, and strengthen coordination between the two in major international and regional affairs such as UN reform as well as situations in the Middle East and Northeast Asia.
It is also hoped that progress on the China-U.S. Bilateral Investment Treaty negotiations will be made during Xi's visit. This is significant, as the recovery of the U.S. economy will also help boost China's economic growth and the transformation of its industrial structure. Not long ago, a U.S. Treasury Department official signaled willingness to help out with the AIIB's international financing. Meanwhile, Chinese officials have also repeatedly stated that China is open to joining TPP negotiations. If both sides can take the upcoming summit as an opportunity to demonstrate goodwill on both issues, it would be a definite step forward.
Whatever Xi's trip accomplishes, it cannot be expected to put a full stop to the debate on China policy within the United States. Indeed, it is very possible that this debate will only further intensify in the aftermath of the visit. If the two presidents only focus on cooperation in their upcoming talks while neglecting areas of difference such as the South China Sea issue, cybersecurity and changes in the world order, it would represent a wasted opportunity and one that could actually contribute to further decline in the China-U.S. relationship.
The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review
Copyedited by Eric Daly
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