Three perspectives to stop the Sino-US strategic drift

David Lampton says despite some positive developments, relations between China and the US are deteriorating as mutual suspicion deepens, and ways must be found to better manage this important relationship

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 November, 2015, 5:38pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 November, 2015, 5:38pm

In January 1980, Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) prefaced remarks to Central Committee cadres in a straightforward and modest spirit that I will try to emulate here. Deng said: “At present there are some problems within the party and among the people which call for a solution. Of course it is impossible for me to cover them all in my speech today, and the comments I am going to make on some of them may not be adequate. But since you want me to speak, I will do so.”

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These are troubled times requiring both realistic thought and an empathetic spirit. What attitudes and perspectives should both America and China bring to productively manage our relationship? Of course, translating general guidelines into concrete actions is not easy. But, if public and private leaders in both countries fail to manage the Sino-American relationship well, history will be unforgiving in its judgments. Americans and Chinese must jointly navigate the treacherous waters of a world that has become a very different place from the post-second-world-war era in which the word “superpower” was a relevant concept. The word “superpower” misdirects us in a world of broad interdependence and diffusing power.

The word ‘superpower’ misdirects us in a world of broad interdependence and diffusing power

The strategic direction of the US-China relationship is not healthy, several recent positive and important developments notwithstanding. Among those welcome events, one must count President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) September journey to the US and this month’s historic meeting in Singapore between Xi and Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou. One also should include: progress on climate change cooperation; military exchanges; the development and use of crisis management mechanisms; guidelines for air and sea encounters; further progress in bilateral economic relations; and tenuous movement in the realm of cyberspace.

Also encouraging is mounting Chinese investment in the US, creating 80,000 American jobs in China-affiliated enterprises, and the literally hundreds of thousands of Chinese students contributing to American education and research. Not to be overlooked are current cooperative plans to greatly increase the number of American students learning the Chinese language.

Strategically important is some cooperation with respect to the Iranian nuclear negotiations, anti-piracy initiatives, and joint efforts to combat Ebola in Africa. In short, there are things to celebrate.

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But, underneath these welcome developments is a deepening mutual strategic suspicion. The centre of gravity of elite discussion in both capitals has shifted away from a vocabulary of partnership and strategic cooperation, migrating through a stage in which each hedges its bets, to what now is becoming a deterrence vocabulary. Fundamental to deterrence is threat, establishing credibility and the urge to see big principles at stake in seemingly smaller issues.

Consider the South China Sea in recent months. America and China solidify outposts in the region, whether through alliance strengthening, land reclamation, long-term access agreements and base enlargement. In terms of big power ties, Beijing and Washington are each drawing closer to third parties, hoping to restrain one another through triangular, balancing efforts – Washington and Tokyo draw closer, as do Beijing and Moscow. Both militaries are developing new weapon systems, in part aimed at each other.

In another vein, consider that meaningful space cooperation with the Soviet Union was possible under American law at the depths of the cold war – this is not so with China today. A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting China’s first person sent into space, Yang Liwei (楊利偉), and recall thinking at the time how much better off we all would be if space were a zone of Sino-American cooperation.

We are in a downward strategic drift that demands our reflection and action. It was security that brought Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong (毛澤東), and Jimmy Carter and Deng, together. We now find security becoming a net negative in the relationship. This creates the obvious danger of militarisation, which brings with it all the attendant risks of miscalculation, escalation and pre-emption. Continued deterioration will infect the bilateral, economic, cultural, and diplomatic facets of the relationship.

So, what should we do to stop this slide? Three perspectives may offer guidance on managing this relationship.

These perspectives can be viewed as my initial attempt to respond to Xi’s call at a recent meeting with Henry Kissinger in which the Chinese president said: “The two countries should have a correct understanding of each other’s strategic intentions and strengthen pragmatic cooperation at all levels to expand common interests by thinking in an innovative way.”

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Perspective one: International power relationships are changing with the rise of China and others. This does not mean that America is becoming absolutely poorer or weaker or that Chinese people have achieved the per capita welfare level they desire or deserve. But, changes in relative power have consequences. These changes mean that the quest to maintain primacy by the previously dominant party will become progressively more difficult to realise and progressively less tolerable to the ascending power.

Changing power relationships require each party to perform an essential task to preserve system stability. The previously dominant power must make room for the rising power in established global and regional institutions. In the World Bank and in the United Nations system, the United States has done a pretty good job at this. In the International Monetary Fund, much work remains to be done.

And, in the imbroglio over the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, we were given a textbook lesson on how not to do things. For its part, China has to be patient, keeping the frustrations born of its painful past in check so that the international system can gradually adapt. We should strive to build common institutions.

Perspective two: Successful political leaders must maintain balance between their international entanglements and available resources and simultaneously maintain balance among external commitments and domestic needs. This means setting priorities. Currently, neither Beijing nor Washington is doing a good job at this.

The US in recent months has declared the Islamic State and al-Qaeda to be immediate, severe non-state threats; Russia to be a very significant big power threat; and, China to be a longer-term, dynamic challenge to the world and regional orders. We won’t even mention the Middle East and Central and South Asia. The US will be unable to maintain its comprehensive national power base, much less meet its own growing development needs, without priorities that remove something from its global “to do” list.

For China, without effective efforts to reassure its neighbours, its rapid moves towards more involvement in the region and the world, acquisition of impressive military capabilities, and expenditure of greater energy in asserting sovereignty claims, Beijing runs the risks of creating counter coalitions and fuelling a regional arms race. Beijing’s posture may prove premature. Neither country now has feasible strategic priorities.

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Perspective three: Today, the US-China relationship is society to society in scope. The corporate, local, NGO and individual levels are where cooperative and win-win impulses find their fullest expression. These levels must be strengthened and nurtured. Iowa governor Terry Branstad notes that around one in four rows of soya beans planted in his state is exported to China.

Put differently, I calculated roughly how many presidential electoral votes are in US states that have US$1 billion or more in Chinese foreign direct investment and/or 1,000 or more American workers employed in Chinese-owned facilities. Fifteen states with 242 out of 538 total electoral votes fall into this category – it takes 270 electoral votes to elect a president. These states have 30 senators, alone sufficient to influence legislation in Congress. My point is not that Chinese investment can determine elections, or US senators will become vessels of China’s will, but rather that the reach of US-China relations at the level of employment in localities is growing. These local realities are likely to shape the larger relationship in ways similar to those we saw when Japan invested in the auto industry in Ohio and other US states. Similarly, mounting employment-generating American investment in China will shape local attitudes and national behaviour in China.

This society-to-society relationship is why I believe it is imperative that Beijing draw up needed rules to govern China’s own social organisations and foreign non-governmental organisations and that great care be taken not to damage these bedrock ties.

Today’s US-China relationship is the handiwork of many people in both our countries over the past 45 years. As one Chinese proverb enjoins, “Those who drink the water should remember those who dug the well”. History often speaks in terms of elites and national leaders. They are important. But, also essential is the vision of our local leaders, our private and non-state sectors, and our citizens.

Today’s US-China relationship is the handiwork of many people in both our countries over the past 45 years

In concluding, from the moment I landed in this city jubilant at the fall of the “Gang of Four” in 1976, I saw the lights of China come back on – the lights in people’s faces, the lights in universities and academies, and the heat and light of entrepreneurship. The neon lights that now bedazzle were reinstalled after so many years of being dark.

During the nearly four decades following those heady October days, mayors and party secretaries of Shanghai, such as Wang Daohan, Jiang Zemin (江澤民), Zhu Rongji (朱鎔基), Xu Kuangdi (徐匡迪) and many others I knew less well, turned those lights ever brighter. This benefited the entire world.

Building constructively on their positive legacy must be our current task. This is a task about which we should be strategically optimistic. Public opinion polls by Pew show that in both of our societies, younger people are predisposed to have more positive views of each other’s countries than are older people. Mao put it poetically in the 1960s: “Young people beat the old. In the Yangzi River, the rear waves push those in front; in the world, new people chase after the old.”

David M. Lampton is professor and director of China Studies at  Johns Hopkins-SAIS. This article is drawn from the Barnett-Oksenberg Lecture he recently delivered in Shanghai, sponsored by the National Committee on US-China Relations and the Shanghai Association of American Studies