Living with the undercurrent of hostility in Sino-US cooperation

Junfei Wu considers the pitfalls of a less accommodating working relationship between the US and China

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 June, 2015, 5:25pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 June, 2015, 5:25pm

In the recent confrontation over the South China Sea, a Chinese military dispatcher demanded eight times that a US P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft leave the area as it flew over Yongshu Island (also known as Fiery Cross Reef). One could use an analogy of training a lion to explain the current relationship between China and the US: no matter how well you two get on, there's always a chance the lion will bite you.

The US relationship with China is as ambivalent as Americans' perception of Chinese people's character. The Chinese are sometimes perceived as authoritarian, hardline communalists or factory worker bees; Chinese values are alien to Americans. But Americans also see the Chinese as hospitable people.

The love-hate dynamics are muddied by China doves converting to China hawks, as in the case of David Shambaugh, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, who wrote an essay titled "The Coming Chinese Crack-up", which has generated enormous reverberations in the international relations community.

Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister of Australia, was right to disagree and argue for a new framework of constructive realism for a common purpose to re-anchor the bilateral relationship. But the controversy over Shambaugh's essay should be a reminder that there is still a long way to go for American scholars to grasp the gist of Chinese political and economic reforms.

By sending a spy plane to China's doorstep, with CNN journalists on board, the Americans roused the anger of a nation struggling to understand why the US has seemingly shifted its security strategy towards a more negative direction.

The Chinese can also complain about Washington's closest ally in the region, Japan, which has been hostile to China's foreign policy every step of the way; about neighbouring states - backed by the US - that have been rushing to claim China's islands. Well, at least that is the public position taken by the Chinese foreign affairs ministry spokespeople.

China and the US can become good partners - but only if they realise the new relationship must involve some give and take. This means following the recommendation made for the hawks on both sides to show restraint and make concessions.

Being too cosy with the US is bound to cause difficulties for Chinese decision-makers as this is a business relationship at its heart. Economically, there is a mutual dependence, but their values are ultimately alien to each other. There is potential for many pitfalls, which are compounded when historical and current conflicts get in the way. This is especially the case where China's territorial rights are involved.

The concept of a G2 (Group of 2) joint leadership by the US and China - first proposed by the American economist C. Fred Bergsten - has been advocated by politicians, such as former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and former World Bank president Robert Zoellick. Prominent historian Niall Ferguson also supports the idea and coined the term "Chimerica" to describe the symbiotic nature of the world's two largest economies and trading nations.

It's interesting to see that the idea was soon dismissed by both Beijing and Washington, even though calling on the two sides to do more together has an undeniable logic. It is important to examine the arguments against the proposal, especially for the top decision-makers, who may be more alike than most people realise.

If a G2 is not feasible, how about a P2 (partnership of two)? One sees a structure where the participating parties are bound by law - a formal arrangement - to advance their mutual interests. This partnership will prevent economic interdependence - the cornerstone of the China-US relationship - from being ruined by a tide of events, and respect China's legitimate aspirations for a voice in the international system.

Likewise, China will establish another type of special relationship - a C2 (Club of 2) - with Russia, an informal arrangement that would be bound by trust.

The Americans were surely watching as President Xi Jinping joined President Vladimir Putin in Red Square to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war, although news reports in the West downplayed the significance of the event. Again, it was an indication that although the Americans may dislike Chinese values, they know they should not be too aggressive to push China and Russia together to form an anti-US alliance.

In the current diplomatic climate, it is unlikely that many of the hawks will find it easy to accept a US-China relationship like that in the early 1980s. Unlike Henry Kissinger, few politicians will have the guts to sail into uncharted waters with a strategic package of seismic change. A possible way out could be a "proportional engagement policy" towards China, where the US and China accommodate each other's interests in the Asia-Pacific region as per their economic strength.

Neither of the two political parties in the US appears ready to withdraw US military forces from the region where the "pivot" policy dominates. The US and Japan have substantially upgraded their security alliance, and the US is reportedly planning to station B-1 strategic bombers in northern Australia. Washington seems determined to control the region in the foreseeable future.

So what's next? I stand by George Soros, who has recently called on Washington to make a major concession and allow China's currency to join the International Monetary Fund's special drawing rights basket. This could help further deepen economic interdependence between the two countries. But have we really come so far that it is now possible for a rising power and a hegemonic one to join hands for the sake of the welfare of all human beings, to manage the world's ailing financial system together?

We will see what Chinese and American politicians can achieve at the seventh Strategic and Economic Dialogue to be held in Washington in late June.

Dr Junfei Wu is research director at the Tianda Institute think tank in Hong Kong