Re-thinking U.S.-China relations

By Nina Hachigian
November 19, 2012

The United States and China have been searching for a new way to frame their relationship.  President Barack Obama’s trip this week to Southeast Asia, the focus of much U.S-Chinese tension, reminds us that with new leadership now set in both countries, it is time for them to carry on with that important task.

The new head of China’s Communist Party Xi Jinping called for a “new type of great power relationship” when he visited Washington last spring. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that Washington and Beijing “are trying to do something that is historically unprecedented, to write a new answer to the age-old question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet.”

Obama’s China policy has been successful in securing U.S. interests. What’s missing, however, is the two nations’ shared understanding of how they can co-exist in peace decades into the future.

Instead, many Americans envision a stronger, more aggressive China that Washington may need to confront. Many Chinese, meanwhile, fear a United States that will seek to preserve its waning power by lashing out.

As China grows stronger, uncertainty about what will come next in the bilateral relationship may only increase.

When Obama’s foreign policy team takes the helm in January 2013, it needs to work with Chinese leaders to develop a clear vision for their future relationship.

There is a solution.  The vision the two countries could adopt is close at hand: The established superpower and the fast-rising power, along with other nations, embedded in a web of common rules, norms and institutions that channel their competition and bound their rivalry.  Many rules already govern state action — like those for intellectual property protection, and the international community is developing others, like those to reduce mercury in the atmosphere.  Some rules are still elusive – such as those to govern weapons in space.

U.S. leaders have regularly taken China to task for not following international rules on trade, human rights and maritime law, and not being a “responsible stakeholder” by, for example, blocking U.N. Security Council resolutions designed to halt the crisis in Syria.

The Obama administration has also often defended the important role of international rules and institutions. What it has not done, however, is draw explicit connections between the international system of rules, Beijing’s attitude toward it and the future of the U.S.-China relationship.

The administration should make the case that the peaceful future of the U.S.-China relationship depends on both sides’ working within the international system of rules and institutions, whether it be on trade, taxes or territorial disputes.

The international architecture of these rules can draw boundaries around the two nation’s natural rivalry.  It helps manage areas of competition when each side is assured that the rules are fair and followed. Forums for dispute resolution – such as the one in the World Trade Organization– can ease frictions.  Collaboration is easier when both countries know that they are shouldering a fair share of the burden, along with other nations.

This re-imagining of the relationship should appeal to China. The rhetoric of Beijing’s top leaders is heavy with references to abiding by international rules and becoming a good global citizen. China’s trajectory in joining the international system since the early 1970s is impressive — though incomplete.

What the rules-based framework offers China is a stable, constructive vision of the U.S.-China relationship that does not depend on the demise of the Chinese Communist Party. A stable bilateral relationship is still critical to Beijing’s domestic goals. A rules based U.S.-China relationship could also ease the worries of China’s neighbors about the assertive way Beijing is defending its interests, including territorial claims.

One sticking point for China will be: Who make the rules?  But U.S. and other diplomats are learning everyday about how Beijing wants to play in the international system and what it takes to bring China on board. Beijing can have a hand in making the rules without wrecking established norms.  For example, China was a ground-floor member of the new Financial Stability Board, formed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and has helped craft rules limiting banks’ risky behavior.

The state of the U.S.-China relationship today provides a good argument for the need of a new rule-based frame. The areas most susceptible to misperceptions and escalating frictions are those where no common rules apply — like cyber-attacks and maritime activity in the South China Sea.

With trade, on the other hand, the U.S. and China compete and bicker — but the disputes are limited to questions of whether the other side is following the rules and the fury is contained (except during election season) within a neutral World Trade Organization process.

This is not a call for a G-2 in which Washington and Beijing alone decide major international questions. China is not the only pivotal power, and this framework can stretch to fit all nations.  Moreover, the international system itself has a starring role in this vision.

For this concept to work, China will have to improve on its record of rule-following. The United States has its own work to do– starting perhaps with ratifying the Law of the Sea Treaty.  New rules are needed in many areas and the U.S. will have to include China in developing them.  The case for shaping and then abiding by shared international standards, rather than abridging them as great powers can, will require convincing domestic critics in both nations, but a second-term US president and firmly installed Chinese leaders should have the leeway they need to chart a new course.

It will not be easy for either country — suspicions will continue, tensions will flare and progress will be slow.  It’s a diplomacy of decades, not news cycles.

But it’s a better alternative than the current path.

PHOTO: President Barack Obama meets with China’s then-Vice President Xi Jinping (2nd L) in the Oval Office of the White House, February 14, 2012.

7 comments

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anything on such a ‘secondary’ issue as US jobs and technology outsourcing to China?.. :)

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

It’s too bad the Chinese and Americans have those pesky governments standing between them and their ability to trade freely with one another. I’m no more suspicious of any Chinese citizen then they are of me on an individual or economic level.

Posted by LysanderTucker | Report as abusive

synopsis: The US and China should play nice.

what a load of old waffle.

Posted by Donquixote2u | Report as abusive

Well yes, the governments, but it’s real about the wealth of industry and the old money. As is everything else. Sure the governments are good at giving the impression of control, but they get orders from the real bosses.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

As always, the one with the big bucks rules……..
Surprised ? It is China’s century.

Posted by EthicsIntl | Report as abusive

China and US should have cordial relationsip for mutual benefits

Posted by wcheong | Report as abusive

US must clearly understand that from the righteous, civilized and historical points of view, China has never been their true enemy. China is only their conceived enemy. Differences always exist even among any family’s members and between couples therefore it is only natural for US and China to have differences. It would be abnormal if there are no differences. Thus differences should not be the cause for preventing US and China to establish true cordial relationship and friendly competition in all fields in order to co-operatively upgrade the standard of all kinds of technologies. In fact US’s true enemies come from two major countries, one is Japan and the other is a hidden one. Whether US admits it or not, the hidden danger will forever exist. Therefore for their long term security and for preventing their people from facing the constant nightmares in future, they should now amend their policy and take steps to get rid of these two countries before it is too late. Japan is the most aggressive monster country. Their Prime Minister even dared to declare in front of President Obama in US territory recently that Japan is back and that they would never want to be No 2. His meaning is obvious and that is to challenge US’s position. Their ambition is so great that any negligence on the part of the US’s government would bring great havoc to the US people. US should plan to carry out preemptive strikes against all the Japanese major cities using nuclear weapons from their near-by air craft carrier so that it gives no time for the Japanese even to response. For doing so, Japan would not blame US because US just correctly learn from them.

Posted by wcheong | Report as abusive