At Least a Better Tone – On Sino-US Relations

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Xi-Obama at Sunnylands

A noticeable difference in tenor.  That is the first thing that struck me about this Dialogue meeting just recently concluded in Beijing.  The tenor of this Harvard-CASS Think Tank Dialogue on “Towards a New Model of Major-Country Relations between China and the United States” differed significantly from the Harvard-Beida Conference of January 2013.  The earlier Harvard-Beida Conference was filled with defensiveness and harsh questioning by our Chinese colleagues over the ‘American pivot’.  Chinese experts made repeated references to US efforts to contain China.  The suspicions over US policy and its intentions in Asia – especially US efforts to contain China – were largely absent from this meeting – apparently the 9th in the series.  Instead, in this meeting there were numerous references to the 35th anniversary of US-China relations.

There was a general sense of better relations in this Dialogue meeting, and there was a continuing effort by China experts to give some substance to President Xi Jinping’s call for a “new model of major country relations” (North Americans preferred to use the phrase “new model of great power relations”).  Whatever form referred to, most China experts suggested that the “New Model” included (see FM Wang Yi’s Brookings speech of September 2013 for the elaboration): avoiding conflict and confrontation between the US and China; adopting mutual respect; and achieving win-win policies. That being said, and as one China expert suggested, these descriptions did little to give any real content to policies the US and China might adopt to enhance cooperation and avoid conflict and rivalry.

The conference spent much of its time on possible enhanced models for Sino-American cooperation. As on American expert suggested it was important to develop cooperation between these two great powers now in part because relations will become more difficult to manage over time.  The US effort to maintain the status quo, and to meet China’s rising influence in Asia, will be met with growing Chinese military modernization in the region.  This will be, according to the same expert, a tense relationship and the challenge will only grow over the next ten years.

That being said another US expert suggested that there were models of enhanced cooperation.  A number of these US experts looked back to the 19th century and the various concerts that were constructed, especially by Bismarck.  Indeed one even suggested that the 20th century represented an aberration in international system organization and behavior.  Therefore there should be grater efforts to examine models from the 19th century.

A strongly expressed view by conference participants – both China and the US experts – was that the central issue for the two great powers was ‘Third Party’ issues in Asia. The regional issues were in fact the first priority.  These issues – North Korea (DPRK), Japan and Korea relations with China, the island disputes in the East and South China Seas – these were the critical issues in the immediate future for the US and China (Taiwan remains a latent issue but for the moment cross strait relations have significantly improved).  As a participant argued the tensions between the two came down to national sovereignty for both sides.  As he suggested the two great powers needed a new kind of relationship to deal with strong nationalist tensions.  It required more than just a discussion of frameworks; it required instead a stepping back from respective models of national sovereignty.  One participant for instance argued that in the national sovereignty dispute between China-Japan over the Senkakus/Diaoyu islets that the two countries would have to think out of the box in the same way that China and the UK/Hong Kong thought of the box in crafting the two-systems/one country solution for the HK.

However one senior US expert argued that a new concert would have to meet realist criteria.  Neither side was likely in the near term to give way on sovereignty in any of the regional disputes. Furthermore, according to this participant the two would have to deal with the changing distribution of power and its consequences for Sino-American relations.  In response to one China expert that the solution of having the two turn their attention to domestic priorities and in effect having both turn inward.  This view seems to pick up from Henry Kissinger and his declared notion of co-evolution.  As suggested by Gordon Chang in a review of Kissinger’s On China, his 2011 book:

 A more likely development is what he [Kissinger] calls “co-evolution,” which means that “both countries pursue their domestic imperatives, cooperating where possible, and adjust their relations to minimize conflict.” The most he says about this scaled-down goal is that the two sides should “attempt to elevate familiar crisis discussions into a more comprehensive framework that eliminates the underlying causes of the tensions.”

But the senior US expert at the Dialogue suggested that there was really no alternative to a much closer economic integration.  A principle domestic focus for each will be inadequate to avoid the serious future tensions that might arise form the power transition as China rises and the United States acts to retain a major role in China. According to this participant we are left with a customs union model.  You must start with diluting economic sovereignty.  You need to find a way toward unification of the two economies.  In the longer term you need to create an ‘overbalance of power’ – each participates in a close knit economic relationship where no other power, or combination of powers, can balance against these two powers.

Next Steps in Overcoming Conflict

So the focus of the next meeting of the Sino-US Dialogue, it seems, must deal with Third Party relations and building, according to one participant a 21st century Concert built on a strong economic relationships and mitigating the tensions and crises in Third Party relations.  As a US expert argued we need to prevent the ‘bads’.  To do this we need to:

  • Bring the two economies closer together;
  • We need a wider coalition that balances from within in East Asia; and
  • We need to focus on a concert of Asia.

To do this we might tackle a number of subjects:

  • Policies that restrain allies.  On this subject we would focus on current US allies.  What policies are needed for US-Japan, China-Japan; US-Korea; Korea-Japan; and then policies/solutions for the DPRK;
  • Building stronger economic relations by a focus on how to: get China to join in TPP talks; what would be needed to complete an agreement on a China-US BIT; unstick the Trilateral (China, Japan and Korea) discussions on an FTA; a completion of the Doha Round;
  • To define policies of collaborative effort in the wider global governance institutions – APEC, EAS, G20 – including new initiatives on investment, trade, climate change, cybersecurity; nuclear nonproliferation.

The Dialogue is moving to tackle the concrete steps that are required to build greater cooperation going forward in Sino-American relations.  

Stay tuned.   

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