Washington Must Look East: The Future of US-China Relations

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The relationship between the US and China is not natural; it is strategically constructed and therefore it can improve and also, sadly, regress. Washington needs to work on its ‘China policy’ given the fundamental changes that have taken place over recent years. China is set to become the biggest economy by 2016 and will be the world’s largest exporter and second largest importer of goods. [1] The economic and physical power of the USA and China are staggering: their combined GDP, according to the World Bank, reaches over $20 trillion, which exceeds the GDP of the European Union by nearly $5 trillion. With regards to land mass, the two countries cover over 20 million square kilometres. Finally, the sheer population of each country gives them great credence to be highly influential in the global arena. With the power they share globally, their relationship is important not only for themselves, but for every single country on the planet. There has even been suggestions of a G2, which alone speaks volumes for the power these two countries behold. It is for these reasons that the US-China relationship is so important, not least for the US, but for ourselves too.

In an increasingly volatile world, with nuclear weapons being developed and more widely available to recently developed states, and events such as the recent Arab Spring, it’s clear that diplomatic relations matter more now than ever before. Globalisation in the twenty-first century has also highlighted a number of new problems, namely terrorism and environmental concerns. Single states’ actions cannot resolve said issues – they transcend national boundaries. Thus, diplomacy becomes the imperative. Environmentally, the US and China are the largest CO2 emitters. If they are going to take green issues seriously, they need to make an active decision to work on improvements together – diplomacy here is key. However, achieving diplomacy is easier said than done, given language barriers, a clash of cultures and severe ideological differences. The US is adopting two strategies. They are co-operating, known as bandwagoning economically with China, given her recent economic ‘miracle’; however, they seek to balance – whereby a country actively seeks to contain another, with regards to her growing influence in general. [2] The US have sought improved relations with ASEAN nations and Japan as a way to do this.

China, with its lack of democracy, high levels of censorship and ‘red’ connotations is the polar opposite of Washington’s hegemonic foreign policy. After years of colonial repression, the founding fathers of the US built their country on the basis of democracy, liberty and freedom, all factors that are somewhat irrelevant in China where elections are seldom and collective identity is more important than an individual. It isn’t only ideological differences that cause rifts diplomatically, but contemporary events and loyalties too. The US shows growing anxiety over China acting as an ally to North Korea, while China is angered by the US’ lack of support over reunification with Taiwan and her alliance with Japan; particularly angered by the territorial dispute of the Senkaku islands. Relations are strained at best.

That is not to say that co-operation is impossible. One area in which both seek to work together regards the issue of terrorism. In the 1990s, China was the victim of terrorism at the hands of a Muslim extremist group, so they could empathise with the US over 9/11. The Chinese President at the time, Jiang Zemin, contacted Bush to show his condolences and full commitment to fighting terrorism. China continued their support by signing Resolution 1368 – a UN document stipulating the Security Council’s commitment to fighting terror. China’s central government in Beijing actively sought to fight terrorism by imposing more stringent checks on US bound trade that went through its major hubs such as Hong Kong, Shanghai and Shenzhen. This co-operation demonstrates that despite different cultures and allies, the two nations are capable of co-operating on global issues.

It’s clear that there is a mixed state of bilateral ties. One would assume the two countries would work to resolve this, particularly the US who has arguably the biggest vested interests in securing a stable world that it wants to dominate. However, Bush and his administration were infamous for their lack of respect towards the Asian region. Despite China’s support over 9/11, Condolleza Rice failed to attend an anniversary ceremony of ASEAN in favour of a photo shoot in an Arab state – the region that took precedent during the Bush years and still does to this day under Obama. There was also that careless speech from Bush where he referred to North Korea as one of the ‘axis of evil’ which did little for US-China relations. This goes to show that the US has a steep learning curve to rectify its past mistakes with China.

So, what ‘China policy’ should Washington pursue? For a start, Obama needs to cultivate communications with his Asian counterparts, not ignore or take advantage of it as his predecessors have done. The US has managed to do this economically, now it needs to work on diplomacy building. The basis is there – the 9/11 consensus demonstrates that the two countries can agree on issues where they have mutual concerns. For this co-operation to spread to other areas of diplomacy, the two must find common ground like they did over their emotional ties to fight terrorism – both China and the US have been victims of Islamic extremism. It’s time America realised that Asia needs more attention and China needs the respect it deserves if the two hope to develop strategies to tackle contemporary global crises as they did with terrorism.

When attempting to build diplomatic relations with China, hard power isn’t going to work as it has in previous interventions; it’s a country far more steadfast than the US knows. The US should not rely on catastrophic events like 9/11 to gain sympathy from China for better relations; instead, they should work on a commitment to respect and friendship building. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, ‘I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.’ [3] Washington’s current political elite should look to their countries forefathers to provide guidance in developing their China policy.

Article by Beth Miller. Edited by Marc Geddes.

[1] Marketplace Business citing The International Monetary Fund, available at, http://www.marketplace.org/topics/business/imf-report-china-will-be-largest-economy-2016.

[2] Walt, K, (1979) Theory of International Politics, pg.8, available at http://www.scribd.com/doc/45635712/WALTZ-Kenneth-1979-Theory-of-International-Politics-Livro-Incompleto.

[3] Lincoln, A, cited in Silenced No More, available at www.silencednomore.com/abraham-lincoln-destroy-enemies-friends/

Further Reading:

CRS report for Congress available at http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RS21995.pdf
Kang, D, ‘Getting Asia Wrong: The Need for New Analytical Frameworks’, International Security, (2003), pp.57-85.
Mahbubani, (2008) ‘America’s Place in the Asian Century’
National Committee on American Foreign Policy (2006) ‘East Asian Security Challenges