Here Is the Way Forward for Troubled China-U.S. Relations

06/09/2015 01:28 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016
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BEIJING -- I just returned from a trip to the United States during which I met with some U.S. lawmakers and esteemed professors, touched base with seven think tanks and talked to a number of media professionals. It struck me that their views toward China are diversified and their signals mixed. In my view, China watchers in the U.S. can be divided roughly into three schools of thought.

The first is what I like to call the "pessimists." An intriguing exemplar of this class of commentator is John Mearsheimer, a political science professor at the University of Chicago. Professor Mearsheimer is probably the most prominent doomsayer with regard to China-U.S. relations. He tries to substantiate his conviction in the inevitability of a power conflict between China and the United States by citing the former's exponential growth. He thinks that China is seeking to reshape the current world order to suit its own interests. Prof. Mearsheimer believes that the U.S. and its allies will have to stop China before it gets simply too big to control and that the U.S. has no time to waste. One of his remarks particularly left an impression on me: China can wait, but we can't! Interestingly, he also stated there is no need for China to challenge the international system as China is in effect a beneficiary of the current world order. Of course, many scholars have told me not to pay too much mind to theories of this stripe as they deviate from the reality of the two countries' relations.

The second group can be called "optimists" -- mainly inhabiting economic and scientific fields in the United States. They believe a rising China will engender more opportunities for win-win cooperation to both sides. In particular, they cite the fact that China has contributed more than 25 percent to world economic growth since the 2008 global financial crisis. They are confident that American companies will derive great benefits if China can maintain its current pace of growth and successfully restructure its economy.

The third group is rather "prudent" or "fretful," and this mindset is particularly prevalent among American think tanks. Many experts see the stable development of China-U.S. relations clouded by uncertainty, yet they stopped short of expressing extreme views in either direction. At present, U.S. think tanks and media are engaged in fevered debate concerning the motives underlying China's land reclamation in the South China Sea. They are concerned not about the territorial disputes per se, but that China might completely undermine the U.S dominance in the region. Hence they hold that the United States must contain Chinese expansion by any means. Examining such a scenario, China experts in the U.S. have begun to worry that the two might fall into the "Thucydides Trap."

From an American point of view, China's growing influence will inevitably arouse attention and suspicion. That is why coverage of disputes and problems pertaining to the South China Sea, cyber security, high technology and military affairs have been so often blown out of proportion.

I met with Dr. Henry Kissinger once again during my trip. He believes that China-U.S. cooperation is moving in the right direction but that more candid communication and sincere cooperation are necessary. Kissinger maintains that prospects for a common world order recognized by all countries are extant, though founding such an order will be a painstaking process.

Three Reasons China Disappoints the U.S.

Chinese scholars have speculated that underlying this suspicion is a grave disappointment with China on three fronts.

First, the United States took it as a given that the seismic change in the Chinese political system would occur once China's modernization was realized. But that didn't happen and their much-anticipated "Chinese Gorbachev" never materialized. In reality, China's success and renewed confidence has only made the Chinese model more secure.

"The much-anticipated 'Chinese Gorbachev' never materialized. In reality, China's success and renewed confidence has only made the Chinese model more secure."

Second, since integrating itself into the international system, China has actively participated in and even helped shape international and regional affairs rather than passively bending to the will of the United States.

Third, as economic reform has begun to wade into deep water, large American companies in China are no longer able to reap profits of the same magnitude they once did.

Consequently, the United States has vacillated between support and suspicion and between recognition and obstruction with regards to the important roles China has started to play in global issues such as climate change and international governance. It has mixed feelings toward China's rising international status. It remains ambivalent concerning China-proposed initiatives such as the land and maritime Silk Road Initiatives and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. What struck me, however, was that, now, there is a wide belief among the American think tanks that no convincing reasons exist for the United States not to support or participate in these initiatives.

Should the World Remain in Thrall to the U.S.?

Indeed, It is hard to find a precedent in human history which allows for big powers establishing an equal and mutually respectful relationship based on consultation, rather than war. I wonder whether the U.S. is still content with its current way of leading the world? By that, I mean does it expect that the rest of the world will remain perennially in thrall to the United States?

In recent years, U.S. officials and scholars have repeatedly stressed the need for their country to maintain its leading position in the world. I, for one, wonder whether U.S. anxiety concerning this issue has its roots in the country's inability to adapt quickly to changes, both internal and global. Fluctuations in Sino-U.S. relations, in my view, serve as a barometer for these changes.

"It is absurd to think that protecting its allies' interests equates with the protection of peace and order in the whole region."

For instance, regarding Asia-Pacific security, the U.S.-led military alliance only incorporates a few countries in the region, so by definition it cannot represent the will of all Asia-Pacific countries. It is absurd to think that protecting its allies' interests equates with the protection of peace and order in the whole region. If the United States believes that the leading role it plays within its coterie gives it leverage over the security interests of all other Asia-Pacific nations, countries outside the alliance will be loath to accept this idea.

Therefore, it is not the case that China or any other country is challenging the United States' leading position, but rather that the United States itself needs to think things out and abandon maladaptive perceptions and habits.

The superpower should consider building a world order based on shared responsibilities as Henry Kissinger has suggested. As far as I'm concerned, the new order should strive to remedy the lack of inclusiveness extant in its present incarnation.

The very essence of the concept of "a new type of major country relations," as proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping, is to avoid confrontation between big powers such as China and the U.S. and to blaze a new trail of mutually beneficial cooperation. This will also furnish established and emerging powers with a new set of protocols to guide their dealings with one another.

17,000 Passengers Daily Fly Between the U.S. and China

Despite our differences, we have never been hesitant to strengthen our ties. Currently, cooperation between China and the United States is more extensive and multifaceted than that between any other pair of countries worldwide. Bilateral trade surged to $555.1 billion last year, and two-way investment stock exceeded $120 billion while the number of air trips reached 6.13 million, meaning that on average, 17,000 passengers flew between the two countries daily.

The number of Chinese going to the United States for travels and study has swelled owing to the new U.S. visa policy put in place last November, which extended the period of visa validity to 10 years. Visa applications increased 50 percent on an average working day. It is estimated that the number of visas handed out to Chinese citizens in 2015 will exceed 2.6 million. One can only imagine how overworked the U.S. embassy visa officials must be at present!

It could be concluded that the level of interaction and cooperation serves as a solid rebuke to pessimism with respect to U.S.-China relations.

Cooperation between China and the U.S., which together account for one-third of the global economy, holds the balance in today's world and even the slightest sign of trouble will cause a blip on the global radar.

Three Ways to Improve Relations

President Xi will pay the first ever state visit to the U.S. in September. The fact that this was announced seven months in advance shows the importance and expectations both sides place on this visit. The time is ripe for scholars specialized in Sino-U.S. relations to tackle the big problems in their area and engage in some solid research and analysis on how to tackle major issues in bilateral relations in order to minimize future uncertainties.

In my own modest opinion, the following considerations are of great import to improve relations:

First, it is incumbent upon the two countries to communicate more effectively. At present, neither side can convince the other as to the validity of one another's points when disagreements arise. We need to exploit the opportunities presented by such occasions to explain our respective policies and strategies at different levels in a calm and reasonable manner. I have participated in some of the dialogues and feel that in addition to demonstrating their respective stances, both sides should be good listeners to the other's opinions. The best-case scenario would be that the two could reach some form of consensus every time and adhere to it thereafter. As China-U.S. relations have gone far beyond bilateral issues, any discussion between the two sides should also touch on regional and global issues to reduce misunderstanding and miscalculation.

The understanding and support by the two peoples of the content and outcomes of these dialogues is also vital to the stability of bilateral relations. If the two peoples and their respective media continue to express antagonistic sentiments, ongoing negotiations will inevitably suffer.

Secondly, the two countries should avoid goading each other and should have a good sense of risk management in bilateral relations to prevent matters from spinning out of control. As Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai recently remarked, the United States is obviously attempting to draw China's ire by flying a reconnaissance aircraft close to the Chinese construction side in the sea carrying a CNN news crew.

Such brinkmanship style provocations will only make matters worse.

While the United States remains skeptical about China's intentions in the South China Sea, in the eyes of the Chinese, the U.S. behavior on this matter is like a flamboyant eagle which has flown into a china shop -- shattering the delicate and nuanced process for shelving disputes and addressing differences through dialogue that China and its neighbors worked so hard to create. The United States has refused to concede that tension in the region might be related to its "rebalancing in Asia and the Pacific."

"The U.S. behavior on this matter is like a flamboyant eagle which has flown into a china shop."

In the post-Cold War era, this U.S. approach of resolving regional confrontations through coercive means has led, after all, to more violence and poverty in different parts of the world.

The U.S. government has in recent years drawn lessons from past failures, and tends now to refrain from using force when their vital interests are not at stake. But many U.S. scholars have expressed doubt concerning this approach, maintaining the country should return to its past hard-line tactics.

I can't help but wonder: Why are they trying to introduce tactics that have so resoundingly failed in the Middle East into the Asia Pacific? Shouldn't they think, for just one minute, of new ways to communicate with other major powers, including China? China and the United States need some serious discussion, including between academics, on this matter.

Thirdly, from China's side, we need to adapt ourselves more quickly to our new role as a new type of major country, and to learn to explain our intentions in a way that can be accepted by other nations in the world.

Though China is indubitably big, its magnitude belies its actual strength. The country is still learning how to become a global player. On numerous occasions, Americans and Europeans have asked China to play "a leading role" with regard to international affairs. "A leading role," to the ears of the Chinese, is an almost alien phrase. It will take time for us to master the steps necessary to waltz gracefully across the global stage. Domestically, we have our own issues and challenges to resolve, which demand our focused attention.

"Why are they trying to introduce tactics that have so resoundingly failed in the Middle East into the Asia Pacific?"

As a country on the rise, China needs to be patient, cool-headed and magnanimous. We could learn much from observing a seasoned superpower like United States to avoid misunderstandings. U.S. studies by Chinese academics need to get deeper. U.S. policy towards China is not based on linear thinking, it is sometimes the result of multiple perceptions piled together. Now is a crucial time as U.S. think tanks are widely possessed of the belief that the U.S. needs to review the China policies, and we should all the more actively make our voices heard. The situation whereby the U.S. makes judgements about China based on incomplete and inaccurate information should be avoided.

Proactively Plot the Future

With regard to cooperation, theory and practice should go hand in hand. Over the past 40 years or so, practice has always preceded theory with regard to China-U.S. cooperation, and we have proceeded largely through trial and error. This is sometimes inevitable.

However, given the changes in priorities, sequencing, status and scope of China-U.S. cooperation and the widening gap of expectations, there is a need to proactively plot the future course of Sino-U.S. relations. Academics from both countries should attempt to think outside of the box and help policymakers to draw up a roadmap for bilateral cooperation.

As President Xi remarked, the past 35 years of China-U.S. relations have shown that a sound China-U.S. relationship serves the fundamental interests of the two peoples and benefits the Asia-Pacific and the world.

To put it in another way, the consequences for the world of our not doing so are too grave to contemplate.

This piece also appears in The Beijing Review.

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