The Sino–US balance of power has changed greatly since 2008 and the power disparity between the two is shrinking. The rise of China causes deepening unease and anxiety in the United States and forces a costly adjustment in mutual calculations. China now expects to have an equal say in joint cooperation. Many American analysts and political leaders are concerned about the possible disruptive impact of China’s rise, yet they also realise that the cost of confrontation is increasingly high.
Mutual interdependence is a great incentive for cooperation, even if it requires hard work and creates vulnerabilities. It is crucial for the United States and China to establish a new model of major powers relations — as Xi Jinping has suggested — on the basis of three simple concepts: no conflict, no confrontation and win-win cooperation.
The Obama–Xi summit should lead to significant progress in this new great power relationship, with some pragmatic achievements in areas such as climate change, cyber security, market access and people-to-people exchanges.
The current US presidential nomination campaigns must not interfere with the negotiations. Republican presidential candidates have engaged in active ‘China bashing’, causing some damage to Xi ‘s visit. The stuff of American electoral politics, these remarks can be understood from the perspective of US domestic politics, and should not be taken too seriously, but they could yet have a serious impact on China–US relations and undermine mutual trust in the public. An effort to depoliticise the relationship would help tremendously.
But leaders on both sides must address their respective concerns. China–US relations are complex: the two are highly interdependent, but strategic competition is escalating. Both countries must cooperate to safeguard their common interests and prosperity, while remembering that a degree of competition is inevitable. Indeed competition is already apparent in the region.
The United States is concerned about China’s military build-up (especially in the South China Sea) and cyber security, seeing both as threats to US security. There is also some concern about China’s economic fluctuations, given America’s economic interdependence and commonality of interests with China. On this front, the two sides have more room to work together to improve their economies.
The two have already greatly expanded the coordination and cooperation on macroeconomic policies since 2008, mainly through venues like the Strategic and Economic Dialogue and the G20. Much progress has been achieved in fighting the global financial crisis and cooperating to stimulate the world economy.
China is concerned about the US Asia Pacific strategy, which appears increasingly organised to counter its rise. China does not want to see the US engaged in a military encirclement, to build up a so-called ‘Asian version’ of NATO. Meanwhile, China has deep concerns about US support for Japan’s recent moves to revise its constitution, as well as its encouragement of Japan’s involvement in the South China Sea.
Of course, China recognises that it should not overreact. It seeks to deal with the United States calmly and from a position of strength. If China can maintain good relations with neighbouring countries, it believes that the strategic containment, pushed forward by US hardliners, will ultimately fail.
For its part, the United States must abandon the concept of ‘absolute security’. America has long been accustomed to the status of absolute superiority of national power and military strength and has put emphasis on maintaining ‘absolute advantage’ and ‘absolutely security’. Yet, this ignores the fact that this strategy also generates regional insecurity.
What kind of relationship will China and the United States eventually form in the Asia Pacific?
Over the past 30 years, the Asia Pacific has emerged as the dynamic core of the global economy, mainly due to continued peace and stability and to the Sino–US partnership. The challenge is how the US-led regional security order will adapt to the rise of China: will the United States insist on maintaining the old order and cause confrontation with China or will it take part in the establishment of a new security order, based on the concepts of mutual and cooperative security, inclusive of China?
The future of the Asia Pacific region depends on benign Sino–US interaction, China’s handling of neighbouring relations and China’s own stability and growth. Forces for change in the existing regional security structure have increased. South Korea and many Southeast Asian countries are not willing to ‘choose sides’. But Sino–US strategic competition could generate unintended consequences of a scale that neither side could control, eventually leading to a new Cold War. We must be very wary of such an outcome.
China has currently launched new initiatives to alleviate tensions: both the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the One Belt, One Road initiative aim at providing regional public goods and promoting international economic cooperation. These initiatives are expected to help maintain the regional security order and ease Cold War-like tensions in the Asia Pacific.
While the two global giants compete in the Asia Pacific, they have proven more able to cooperate on global issues. China and the United States share common interests in nuclear non-proliferation in North Korea and Iran. As major CO2 emitters, they share responsibility to ensure the success of climate negotiations in 2015 and beyond. While the two may have different approaches to global issues, they have exhibited more common interests than differences.
The relationship is now a key pillar for global cooperation. The better China–US relations, the more cooperation one can expect on global issues. Equally, the more problematic the bilateral relationship is, the harder it is to achieve practical cooperation. As cooperation on global issues shapes the development of bilateral relations and the regional order, China and the United States should carry out more extensive and higher levels of cooperation on such issues, to ensure increased mutual trust and better outcomes. In this regard, the outcome of the Xi–Obama summit will be important.
Wang Yong is a professor at the Peking University School of International Studies and visiting chevalier chair professor at the Institute of Asian Research, University of British Columbia, Canada.
Yves Tiberghien is an associate professor of political science and director of the Institute of Asian Research, University of British Columbia, Canada.