Whither China-U.S Relations on 40th Anniversary of Nixon’s Visit to China

One of the historic events of the 20th century was the initiation of the rapprochement with China under President Nixon with his visit to China in February 1972. This visit was preceded by secret contacts and visits by Henry Kissinger. It was a strategic initiative to both divide further the shaky China-Russia alliance and also acknowledgment of China’s growing role and power in Asia.  The deal turned out to be largely good for both sides over the long-term.

At a time when both the leadership of America will be tested in the November election and China’s own leadership will change to a new generation, there is likely to be a re-assessment within China of that relationship and also some debate in the U.S. about the so-called “rise of China.” Already some in America still want to make China an “enemy.”

The China-American relationship is even more interdependent than the Russian-American relationship. This is true both in terms of magnitude of trade and finance and in terms of human-to-human contacts and communications along a wide spectrum of subjects.  A total disengagement or a conflict that severs most or all ties would be a disaster for each side.

The recent visit of the likely next Chinese president to the U.S. and the degree that the Obama administration has been paying attention to the relationship indicates how import each side weighs that relationship.

But that relationship is not on auto-pilot.  It will take much attention and nurturing.

The issues, agenda, and the options to ensure that the trajectory remains on a positive course include the following:

Trade and Finance: Sooner rather than later there will be a need for a better balance of trade and some understanding on currency rates that will make that balance take place. Not least, China will have to address key issues like rule of law, protection of intellectual property, and investment restrictions, among many other outstanding issues. But this will not be easy and there are strong forces in both countries that support the status quo on individual outstanding questions, fearful that their economic interests will be impacted. A “grand bargain” approach might be useful in this sector.

Regional/Global Security: At some point China will decide whether it will direct its defense forces towards an aggressive forward posture or a more benign direction of adequate defense and reasonable defense establishment focused on Asia and its own defense perimeters. America will have to decide how far to go to enhance its Asian deployment and how it will be configured. The U.S. will have to think about what the Chinese reaction might be. The combination of a too aggressive stance by both sides would be the worst case outcome.

There are two regional tests of China’s international position. One is dealing wisely with the nuclear threat of North Korea, and the second is a peaceful dealing with Taiwan and negotiated settlements of its boundary conflicts with its neighbors. The North Korean nuclear issue has at the moment the greatest need for resolution but the newly installed and untested North Korea leader remains a problematic factor.

– Role of China in World Affairs: China wants a greater role in world affairs in keeping to its enhanced economic power and size.  It already has a veto in the UN Security Council where it seems to exercise its vote in support of the worst nations on the globe. It has senior positions in the World Bank and IMF but not at the top of either one.  Despite being the world’s second economy it probably won’t gain such a role until it changes its discriminatory trade, business, and financial policies.  It undoubtedly would like to see its citizens in these positions and also in other international organizations.

The problem remains that it is not playing, frankly, a fully “responsible” role yet on the global stage as indicated by its veto of sanctions against Syria, its support of the regime of Sudan with its massive violation of human rights, and support of other authoritarian regimes around the world.

So long as this posture continues, China is unlikely to assume a significantly more prominent role in international organizations nor be invited to be part of the most inner circle of global decision makers except on an ad hoc basis where clearly necessary. 

Its own domestic authoritarian and bad human rights record will also hold back its acceptance into the top elite levels of entirely accepted and respected world leadership.  Here other nations need to urge China’s new leaders to consider the advantages of being a reliable “responsible” leader given what it has to gain. The “proof of the pudding” will be when it disassociates from the marginal countries with abhorrent behavior at home and abroad and focuses on cooperation with the responsible and democratic nations that make up the vast majority of the world’s economy, resources, population, and growth. Its dependence on and support of the nasty marginal states is not in its interest and will harm its “rise” to true global leadership.

It is likely that key decision by China’s leaders will be seen in the next couple of years. America can do a lot to advance a positive outcome. First, we need a more intense public diplomacy effort, especially sending American students and professionals on visits to China and making “person-to-person” contact beyond existing levels. We not only need to change the attitude of the Chinese political leaders but of the engaged and growing educated grassroots leadership to convince them that friendship with America is better than enmity. Second, we need to engage China more on solving global challenges like climate change, ocean conservation, nonproliferation, global humanitarian efforts, and support of a global growth strategy.

The stance that America takes will be a key element in their own perception of the gains of acceptance verses a direction of enmity. We have a lot at stake and need to establish an intense full court task force of our top leadership to work on this issue. The good news is that President Obama, judging by his recent actions, recognizes this challenge, which is more than can be said to those seeking his office or, for that matter, the GOP leadership in Congress.

By Harry C. Blaney III.