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Framing China-U.S. Relations in the 21st Century

  • AUTHORShen Dingli, China-US Focus
  • Aug 5, 2016

At the recent China Development Forum 2016, the Hon. Henry Kissinger and the Hon. Dai Bingguo had a dialogue on avoiding the Thucydides’ trap. This is a critical issue that tests China’s ability to ascend peacefully and the US willingness to accept China’s continuing rise within the existing international institutions.

At the core of growing debate over the acceptability of China’s rise is whether such a rise will remain peaceful. When China opened its doors to the world, it aspired to “integrate with the world”. With this approach China has been able to access resources critical to its development, from foreign capital and technology to external markets. China joined the WTO in 2001 to help expedite its opening and reform.

Three decades after its opening, China has become a prominent player in the world. In terms of foreign trade of goods, it is now the number one exporter and number two importer of the world. While still absorbing large amount of foreign capitals, China has become a major investor around the world. These render China competence as well as influence in the world.

From integrating into the world by conforming with existing international system, China is now asking for more sway in discourse or it would set to build new international organizations so as to “improve international system”. For the past few years China has initiated and succeeded in launching the New Development Bank and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, while still working on the idea of the SCO Development Bank. China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative aims at building infrastructure interconnectedness massively across Eurasian continent, reaching even to Africa. These offer public good to its neighbors and beyond, and boost China’s international leadership.

The US is not only worried about China’s making new international rules but more concerned about China’s possible unwillingness to respect the present regional order, especially in East Asia, where China could be an unsatisfied power. Mainland China shall be unsatisfied with the reality that it has not succeeded in reunifying with Taiwan. It is increasingly intolerant of Japan’s dominance of what China terms as Diaoyu Islands. The US sees China’s interpretation and behavior in regard to its dashed lines in the South China Sea as a touchstone whether Beijing will be interested in retaining its identity as a status quo power.

In short, the US is anxious about China’s predictability in external behavior, based on its a lack of transparency of policy intent as well as interest in keeping conformity with international law. This might be a typical prelude which, if ill handled, could lead to the Thucydides’ trap.

In this context, Kissinger suggested that China and the US shall present statecraft by clarifying their respective principles on crucial regional security matters, say the Korean nuclear issue and South China Sea issue. At a micro level, obviously China and the US would have quite some differences in terms of understanding of and approaches to any particular event, but at a macro level they might be still able to enjoy more consensuses to achieve peace and stability. He suggested that the approach of strategic farsightedness embodied in the Shanghai Communique of 1972 might still be applicable to the two countries on the question of South China Sea. His wisdom deserves serious pondering by the leaders in Beijing and Washington, DC.

China’s former State Councilor, Dai, put it more plainly. He pointed out that Sino-US relations should be framed with a bottom line without capping. Alternatively, China and the US should avoid the worst-case scenarios, whether a hot war or cold war. Instead, Beijing and Washington should build a partnership with no upper limit. He particularly refers to what President Xi Jinping calls a “new type of major-country relationship” – no clash, no confrontation (with bottom line), mutual respect, win-win through cooperation (no upper limit).

For China-US relations, both Kissinger and Dai have pointed the need of long-term vision and management. The policy makers should frame bilateral ties with a macro view. This way they will be able to manage relations with predictability and assuredness. The Shanghai Communique has played such a role during the Cold War era. Now China and the US badly need a new framework guideline that would suit their relations for the post-Cold War century.

In addition to vision and long-term outlook, Dai actually has urged the two countries to fix their relations so as to allow unlimited collaboration while being able to contain damage. This Chinese version of framework, close-bottomed and open-ended, would allow Beijing and Washington to handle their partnership with both realism and opportunism.

In the age of China’s catching up with American dominion, both countries should share the wisdom of Kissinger and Dai. Should such efforts fail, the two countries would face disastrous consequences.

This article was originally published in the China-US Focus. To view the original article, please click here.