Without Trust and Without Paranoia: US-China Relations

It was a time for informal face-to-face contact – just ended – the California summit between Presidents Xi and Obama. There is a strand of global summitry that emphasizes contact between leaders. Such contact can be disastrous of course. Kennedy’s encounter with Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961, left leaders with misconceptions about the other that ultimately led each to take steps that raised threats and crisis. Let’s hope that nothing like this occurs as a result of this summit. And the reality is that the ‘world of summits’ has changed mightily. The two presidents will see each other again shortly in St. Petersburg Russia at the G20 Leaders Summit. And they will meet again shortly thereafter in Asia at the EAS.

What can we draw as the consequences of this informal meeting of the leaders of these two great powers? Ostensibly the two leaders are searching for a “new type of great power relationship” (xinxing daguo guanxi) – The announcement of this informal summit and the search for a different kind of relationship – read all that as an effort by IR types to avoid what international relations theory tells is the likely outcome of rivalry, friction and conflict between an established superpower and a rising one. Thus many of the foreign policy experts have indeed waded in to describe what might result from such a meeting – and give some expression to the ongoing Sino-American relationship.

Stephen Walt at Foreign Policy, the consummate realist suggested a modest result:

Neither Obama nor Xi can alter the core interests of the two countries, or wish away the various issues where those interests already conflict or are likely to do so in the future. The best they can achieve is a better understanding of each other’s red lines and resolve and some agreements on those issues where national interests overlap. In this way, each can hope to keep things from getting worse and at the margin make relations a bit warmer. … But even if Obama is successful this weekend, this effort is unlikely to prevent Sino-American rivalry from intensifying in the future. The basic problem is that the two state’s core grand strategies are at odds and good rapport between these two particular leaders won’t prevent those tensions from reemerging down the road.

Walt acknowledges the description just referred to is a pessimistic one (he does describe a far more optimistic alternative) based on “… Sino-American rivalry in the future no matter how well Obama and Xi (or their successors) get on this weekend. And so for Walt “intense competition is likely”.

Then there is Walt’s FP compatriot – Dan Drezner. Now Drezner is no realist – and in fact in some ways leans more to a neo-liberal framing of international relations (I suspect Dan may not buy this). But Drezner reflected on this upcoming summit at his blog (I anticipate that this blog post is not his final word on this) by referencing Harvard’s Iain Johnston in a piece Jognston wrote recently for International Security examining the growing Chinese assertiveness – which Johnston largely rejects. The lesson for Drezner is China is no revisionist power. As he argues, “Since 2008, China has had multiple opportunities to disrupt the US-Created international order, and Beijing has passed on almost all these opportunities.” So for Drezner the landscape is filled with collaborative opportunities between the US and China:

Now let’s be clear – China is doing almost all of this to advance its own narrow self-interest. None of the above means that China is suddenly going to embrace the US perspective on human rights or the South China Sea. Still, there are a healthy number of issue areas where China’s interests are pretty congruent with the United States, and where China has taken constructive policy steps. … My main point here is that China is a great power that is inevitably going to disagree with the United Sattes on a host of issues. China is not, however, a revisionist actor hell-bent on subverting the post-1945/post 1989 global governance. To use John Ikenberry’s language, recent Sino-American disputes are taking place within the context of the current international order. They are not about radical changes to that international order. Indeed, contrary to the arguments of some, the current system has displayed surprising resilience.

In a curious way this perspective resonates if only a little with a far more pessimistic view – that expressed most pointedly by Yan Xuetong the Dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University. A strong nationalist, and realist, Yan Xuetong is not well known outside China-expert circles. FP did themselves and their publics a great favor in printing a post by the Dean entitled, “Let’s Not be Friends“. For some time now Yan Xuetong has been arguing that leaders and their officials should not promote a vision of a trust-based collaborative relationship – those arguing for it will only be disappointed. The US and China are competitors. But that need not prevent incidents of collaboration:

States cooperate not because of mutual trust, but because of shared interests that make cooperation safe and productive. China and the United States should look hard to identify what these incentives and shared interests are – and focus on developing positive cooperation when their interests overlap or complement one another, such as on denuclearization of the Korea Peninsula, and preventive cooperation when their interests conflict, such as on preventing collisions in [the] South China Sea. … Preventive cooperation differs from positive cooperation because it is based on conflicting — rather than shared — interests. … Areas of friction are likely to become more common in the coming years, but the two countries can skillfully manage their competition if they work to minimize these emerging conflicts — not only in the military sector but also in nontraditional security sectors such as energy, finance counterterrorism in the Middle East, anti-piracy in Somali Sea, and even climate change. … Encouraging China and the United States to prioritize preventive cooperation does not mean they should abandon efforts to build mutual trust. However, it does mean the two countries can stabilize their strategic relations without it. The worst-case scenario is not that China and the United States is not that China and the United States will face more strategic conflicts in the coming years, but that they never learn how to develop cooperation based on the lack of mutual trust, thus allowing a small conflict to escalate into a major one.

I suppose it is a framing a little like: “don’t trust but verify”. The dilemma I fear however is that all this realist formulation will lead – at least in US circles if not Chinese ones – to analogize the relationship to something like the cold war contestants, even as they draw distinctions between the two sets of rivals. Simplistic competitive framing is too easy and too familiar. The Washington-types that always lean on “hedging” and insist on greater military preparedness will target the competitive and forget the collaborative. Inexorably the US and China will be characterized as the new cold war rivals.

I have argued for the necessity of wedging cooperation into the relationship and rejecting any logic to US-Soviet competition. In the past I have argued that “both friend and foe” (yi di yi you) is the better framing for the great power relationship than “neither friend nor foe” (fei di fei you) – a framing often used by Chinese experts. Starting at the post, “Not Required to Choose – A Strategy for US-China Relations” I have argued that defining the relationship as including a collaborative dimension is necessary to avoid sliding into a more difficult unpleasant great power relationship. Yes, it will be difficult especially for US decision-makers to retain the partnership aspect – that is both collaborative and competitive. -Without that collaborative element to the relationship, however, Washington leadership will be all too willing to accept just a rivalrous competitive relationship with China. It is after all politically so much easier.

Let’s not make it easy for the claque.

Image Credit: channelnewsasia.com