The Diversity of Opinions in US-China Relations

Two days of opinion, argument and interpretation.  That’s what I’ve just enjoyed in the smog capital of China and possibly the world – though thankful the winds have picked up and we could at least enjoy the sun by the end of the conference.

This Beijing meeting was the latest in a series of encounters between former officials from the US and China and experts from the same.  These encounters have been organized by the Kennedy School, Ash and Belfer Centers at Harvard and SIS and the Institute for China-US People-to-People Exchange at Peking University.  By one participant’s calculation this was the 8th meeting of the two groups.

So what are the possible takeaways from this meeting – subtitled, “How Can Rising China and Adjusting US Manage Their Relations and Deal with Global Challenges?”  In comparison to the November 2011 meeting in Cambridge MA, the last meeting in the series, this meeting in Beijing reflected by the speakers’ remarks and follow up, a certain sense of enhanced competitiveness – a possibly larger distance – between Chinese and US speakers and their countries over immediate issues.  Most acknowledged competition between the two powers, some suspicion over intentions and a disappointment over the lack of trust between the two.  Speakers sought to identify, in their own ways, both the source of current problems and/or obstacles in the relationship and the means to reassure China and the US thereby build greater trust and restore stability.  What is required, as suggested by one expert, is an “active cooperation.”

The other noticeable feature in the discussions over the last several days was not only the apparent growing diversity of opinion between the groups of experts but a greater diversity of opinion within the groups.  While clashing US expert views over events, intentions and policy were hardly a revelation; the variety of voices and interpretations from our Chinese colleagues was rather more surprising – an unexpected note in the discussions.

So where were the differences most evident?  Well, unlike November 2011 two sets of events were front and center in our examination of the evolving US-China relationship and posed the most marked contrasting interpretations.  The first was the series of island dispute clashes over sovereignty in both the South China and East China Seas.  The second was the description, analysis, purpose and consequences over the US Administration’s “pivot” or “rebalancing” in the Asia-Pacific.  Both event discussions laid bare the contending views of the country actions.

First, the island disputes.  For these former officials and experts, it was evident that they understood the deep differences in the two island chain disputes.  But much attention was placed on the rising friction between and among disputants.

The island disputes moved China, as one expert acknowledged, from reassurance to resolve.  As a result it appears that China’s more assertive behavior has led to many of the disputant states to encourage increased US involvement.  As one expert suggested only China could contain China and as China has become more assertive it has accomplished just that.

There was also much animated discussion over the Administration’s “pivot”.   Some of the most pointed analysis came from US experts.  Much criticism was laid out of the Administration and its intention – the seemingly aggressive use of language by high US officials in the region, the failure to acknowledge the continuity in military policy and the reduction in US assurances to China.  Experts chided the US for interference in the open disputes in particular between the Philippines and China and Vietnam and China in the South China Sea and between Japan and China in the East China Sea.  For Chinese discussants there was a growing suspicion that US actions were designed to contain and constrain China and that US intermeddling, as they saw it, had raised hopes of US support for its Asian allies and had the effect of encouraging greater belligerence among these countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam and most especially Japan.  As one expert suggested while it may not have been US intent, the pivot has put in place policies that increased US presence in region.  Chinese experts were insistent that Chinese actions were only reactive.  Though China was always particularly resolute over sovereignty questions – having endured the many years of humiliation over the foreign interventions in China – its current behavior was neither aggressive nor offensive.

The China experts also raised somewhat puzzling perspectives on US policy in the Asia Pacific region.  Many China experts were critical of the Pivot for it’s almost exclusive attention to military and strategic actions in the Asia Pacific.  They repeatedly questioned the intentions of US policy makers – pointing over and over to designs to constrain China and deny China’s rise.  But then when US experts raised the diplomatic and economic initiatives – the US agreement to join the East Asia Summit, adhere to ASEAN’s TAC – the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, the effort to build consensus for new economic agreement in the Pacific – Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) – these too raised suspicions among some China experts of a unilateral China targeting.  The TPP in particular raised suspicions of an effort to contain China through the proposed trade and regulatory arrangements with an evident effort to isolate China and to target its State-owned Enterprises. Even when it was pointed out that the TPP was in fact a creature originally of the preceding Bush Administration and not immediately connected to the Obama pivot it did not appear to allay concerns.  The incongruity remained on the table:  was the US pivot all about the strategic, or was there in fact a broad revitalization of US actions including strategic but addressing diplomatic and economic initiatives and not solely designed with China in mind.

So a sense of greater friction between the US and China pervaded the discussions.  A number of experts urged that US-China relations not slide toward traditional balance of power relations.  Such a slide could raise the real prospect of competition and growing rivalry in the Asia Pacific. Instead a number of experts suggested that the US and China work on serious issues together, even if these issues were outside the region, to help (re)build trust between these two vital powers. Looking for those issues of engagement is a central focus of a number of the experts following the meeting.

Image Credit:  csmonitor.com

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