Chinese-American Relations: Confluence or Enmity?

The Visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao with President Barack Obama

The visit of Hu Jintao, who heads the state as President and also heads the Chinese Communist Party, highlights the division within both countries about the nature of the long-term relationship and how best to deal with each other. There are clearly significant gaps in common interests, even antagonisms. Also, there are clearly strong areas of common concern and convergence of both economic and strategic interests. The simple fact is that our relationship consists of both conflict and cooperation. It will likely remain so for a fair period of time and both sides will have to manage this reality. That is what this Washington visit is about on both sides.

First: the view from Beijing.  Much has been written in the mass media, including television, major journals, and blogs about the so-called weakness of the authority of President Hu. This is often cited along with the growth in strength and independence of the military. Also alluded as power centers is the so-called growing independence and influence of the business sector, including both private companies and those that remain state controlled.  Yet the Communist Party remains at the center of China’s policy making.

There is, as I have earlier noted on this blog, a public and a private debate within the Chinese society at large and within the party and governmental sphere about how China should relate to the outside world. This is a critical indication of the overall uncertainty about the trajectory for China’s strategic and economic interests. This is also why it is so important for us to get our policies right and not add new elements of tension, which will add fodder for China’s own right-wing to push for confrontation.

The growth of nationalism is worrying while China’s engagement in problem solving and cooperation with America and others in some areas is heartening. This bifurcation is likely to remain a central fact in our relations.  

China is bent on the modernization of its military.  This is clearly seen in its building of new aircraft and naval carriers.  This does not come as a surprise for a nation that is not only already a regional power, but also one that has global aspirations.  But China is not a serious global threat to America’s vital security or existing overwhelming US military power, nor will be for this decade and likely beyond.  America is smart to engage the Chinese military in intense dialogues and would be wise to jointly initiate “confidence building” measures and greater transparency in operations and engagement behavior.  As we did with the Soviet Union during the “Cold War,” calming agreements and intense contacts create an improved environment of assured predictability of possible misunderstood or provocative actions.

The other need is to intensify long-term “people to people” contacts and deepen the interaction at all levels of both societies through educational and cultural exchanges, civic society cooperation, military to military exchanges, and  better balanced business dealings. Already, Chinese students in American schools have helped mutual understanding and ties which bind and reinforce common interests and perspectives.   

The question we need to face is whether and how to best influence China to be a cooperative rising power not an antagonistic one. Obama and his administration, especially in the Department of State and DOD, are clearly aware of this need. Thus, there will need to be many engagements of the highest levels of the USG leadership in dialogues and negotiations with corresponding levels in the Chinese government.

The key areas of possible “antagonism” and divergence of interest are well known; they include Taiwan, conflicting claims to territory, growing nationalism, conflicts over trade and currency control, human rights and the progress of democratization.  Also, North Korea ambiguously remains both a game of common interests in stability in the region and also divergency regarding propping up the dictatorial and rogue behavior of the regime. 

In the area of common interests is the strong symbiotic economic and financial relationship of trade and ownership of American government bonds and dollars, which remain the main foreign currency reserves of China. China needs our trade. The prerequisite of that trade is to hold US dollars at such massive levels where neither side would want to jeopardize that currency or the underlining economic interaction.

The problem, however, is the end need to find a way of balancing that trade in ways that can be sustainable, which it is currently not. China’s main challenge remains the gap between the very poor and the very rich and the accompanying fear of instability. Indeed, there are cooperative policies and approaches which can enhance the solution to both China’s and America’s economic woes and lessen strategic conflicts. I believe that this common interest is one of the most important strategic realities that create common ground between the two powers — a key constraint in their tendencies towards divergency.

The simple fact is that China is a nation in a massive transition that is not simply lineal or predetermined, but rather messy, unpredictable and will likely be at times unnerving. Those who predict war or permanent antagonism are simply wrong. They perpetrate unnecessarily an atmosphere that only aids hostility for their distorted ideological vision to create a new “enemy” where one needs not exist.

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