U.S.-China Tensions: What Must Kerry Do?

In the latest installment of China File’s Conversations series, Elizabeth Economy, Andrew J. Nathan and Orville Schell respond to Nina Hachigian’s recommendations to new U.S. secretary of state John Kerry. In a recent essay at the Center for American Progress, Hachigian looked beyond immediate issues such as the Diaoyu Islands dispute, cyber security and North Korean nuclear testing to a broader question in Sino-U.S. relations:

The United States and China have no shared vision for what their future bilateral relationship could or should look like. They have not articulated a clear understanding of how they could continue to co-exist in peace a decade or two down the road, and they need to develop a shared, tangible idea for the future of the relationship.

Hachigian suggests further integrating China into the international “web of laws, norms, and institutions”, which it currently suspects has been spun by the West to trip it up. This approach is encapsulated in a proposed draft of Kerry’s first speech in China.

From the responses at China File:

Elizabeth Economy: I think Nina is right to identify a lack of shared vision as a serious challenge in the U.S.-China relationship. Unfortunately, I don’t think that at this point in time it is possible to have such a shared vision–beyond what we have always had, namely a stated commitment to peace and stability in the Asia Pacific and to free and open markets. I am fairly sure, for example, that part of our vision for the relationship includes a vastly reformed China (economically and politically)–probably in ways that the Chinese leadership is not interested in reforming, or at least not interested in reforming at the pace we would like. […]

Andrew J. Nathan: […] To be sure, it is hard for any observer — even us, much less policy makers in Beijing — to figure out what American strategy really is. I sometimes even wonder whether it’s possible for a country with two parties that alternate in power, three branches of government, fifteen fairly independent executive departments, and 535 entrepreneurial legislators, to have a coherent strategy. […]

Either way, the Chinese need to know where the U.S. really stands. It’s understandable that they will test the U.S. in rhetoric and in action to find out where Washington’s bottom line lies. We American observers will find out the answer along with China.

Orville Schell: […] Even though Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, China’s next president, has said that he would like to see U.S.-China relations have a fresh start, it is unlikely that there will be a major “re-set” any time soon. Both Beijing and Washington seem far too root-bound by their own issues and inner- and inter-party politics to step out boldly into any kind of new mutual foreign policy framework.

Hachigian argues that the “default prediction” in the absence of a shared vision for the future is “inevitable violent conflict.” At The New York Times this week, on the other hand, Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote that “I do not believe that wars for global domination are a serious prospect in what is now the Post-Hegemonic Age.”

Admittedly, the historical record is dismal. Since the onset of global politics 200 years ago, four long wars (including the Cold War) were fought over the domination of Europe, each of which could have resulted in global hegemony by a sole superpower.

Yet several developments over recent years have changed the equation. Nuclear weapons make hegemonic wars too destructive, and thus victory meaningless. One-sided national economic triumphs cannot be achieved in the increasingly interwoven global economy without precipitating calamitous consequences for everyone. Further, the populations of the world have awakened politically and are not so easily subdued, even by the most powerful. Last but not least, neither the United States nor China is driven by hostile ideologies.

Moreover, despite our very different political systems, both our societies are, in different ways, open. That, too, offsets pressure from within each respective society toward animus and hostility. More than 100,000 Chinese are students at American universities, and thousands of young Americans study and work in China or participate in special study or travel programs. Unlike in the former Soviet Union, millions of Chinese regularly travel abroad. And millions of young Chinese are in daily touch with the world through the Internet.

All this contrasts greatly with the societal self-isolation of the 19th- and 20th-century contestants for global power, which intensified grievances, escalated hostility and made it easier to demonize the one another.

Brzezinski’s prescription of “vital and robust” institutionalized cooperation, though, is similar to Hachigian’s.

Contemplating the less arguable inevitability of “foolish, impetuous, or incompetent leaders in one capital or the other, or maybe even both”, Stephen M. Walt suggested what aspects of this cooperation might look like. From Foreign Policy last month:

The bottom line is that Washington and Beijing have an obvious interest in taking steps now that might make their relationship easier to manage in the future. In particular, establishing rules of the road for naval activity (similar to the earlier Incidents at Sea agreement) might reduce the danger of an unintended clash on the high seas. Reaching an understanding on the use of unmanned drones or cyberattacks would help too. Military-to-military contacts and other forms of elite exchange would be a good idea as well, so that elites in both societies know the people with whom they are dealing personally and are less likely to misread or misinterpret what they may do while in official positions. None of these steps makes rivalry disappear, but together they could help keep it from boiling over.

And that just might be the greatest contribution that these two states could make to international peace and security over the next 25 years.

Efforts to establish an institutional “web” are likely to provoke some suspicion in China. An op-ed in the overseas edition of People’s Daily last July articulated a bleaker view of developing relations between the two powers:

Over the next 5-10 years, the difference in Sino-US power will make a great leap towards transformation from a difference in quantity to a difference in quality. Authoritative international organizations have already roughly estimated that the Chinese economy will overtake the US in total size by around 2020 or so. During this period, China’s military strength and sci-tech capacities will also continue to rise. The US strategic community is currently debating three basic questions with respect to China’s rise: How to respond to the challenging resource, energy, and economic demands of a great power with 1.3 to 1.5 billion people? How to respond to the challenges posed by the political system, development model, and cultural values of a socialist great power? And how to respond to the military security challenges of a great power that has not yet settled all of its issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity?

During this period, the US is likely to use non-military methods to envelop China or seek to perturb its rise, to win strategic gains, to bring about a revival of national power, and to ensure its hegemonic status. [… T]hrough an approach premised on strengthening alliance relationships, upgrading cooperative partnerships, and by splitting apart China’s ties to North Korea, Pakistan, and Myanmar while seeking to rebuild Russo-American relations, and other steps, they will seek to put China in a passive position in its foreign affairs, complicate China’s external environment, and constrict the strategic space for China’s rise; and through the development of dialogues and commonly-accepted definitions of what the Americans call the ‘global commons’ of sea, air, space and cyber, they will seek to substantially weaken China’s ability to compete with or strategically challenge the United States.

The article achieved online notoriety for its suggestion that the U.S. would use groups such as rights lawyers and dissidents to undermine China’s political system.

See also coverage of Kerry’s comments on China at his Senate confirmation hearing last month, via CDT.