United States President Barack Obama is visiting China for the first time since 2009, and following the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit will hold his fourth meeting with China President Xi Jinping. The two leaders are expected to meet in an informal setting, as they did at Sunnylands in California last year, when Xi Jinping first met Obama as president and put forward the concept of “New Type of Major Powers Relations” to guide the growing complex relations between the two countries.
Unfortunately, there has been little evidence of positive progress since last year’s summit; instead, the bilateral relationship has been marked by growing tensions and even setbacks. Whether it be the China seas, the Air Defense Identification Zone, or the US surveillance conducted in China’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), tensions between China and US are running high. On maritime disputes, their positions and perceptions are almost diametrically opposed. In the economic sphere, China and the US are engaging in a kind of unspoken competition, with Washington’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pitted against Beijing’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The US worries about an increasingly assertive China, while China suspects the US of pursuing a policy of encirclement and containment.
Clearly, the China-US relationship is not a new model of relations and interactions between a rising power and the established power. Rather, it shows all the classic manifestations of the rising power/established power historical dynamic. That begs a question: Is a new model possible?
While there is every reason to be pessimistic about the future of the relationship, I’m still cautiously optimistic. There are several reasons why.
First, in contrast to historical patterns, in the postwar era, no country can expect to rise to great power status through conquest. On the ashes of the World War II, the United States took the lead in building a world order based on international law and institutions, and abolished the use of war as a legitimate national foreign policy instrument except in rare situations of self-defense or collective defense with United Nations Security Council authorization. A new pattern has emerged: States rise peacefully by means of trade, as Japan, Germany, India and China have done.
Second, while China is not entirely satisfied with the existing international order, which it play no part in creating, it is not bent on overthrowing it or displacing it with its own alternative. Since 1978, when China first opened its door to the outside world after 30 years of isolation, it has tried hard to become part of the order, as witnessed by its entry into World Trade Organization, and quite possibly the TPP in the future. And unlike the Soviet Union, which established its own economic bloc, ideological camp, and satellite states, and which was bent on putting an end to the capitalist world, China is determined to rise peacefully, and has explicitly sought to build a new type of great power relations as a way of avoiding a repeat of history.
Third, despite the different views concerning disputes in the China seas and maritime and air surveillance in the EEZ, China and the US hold more than 90 institutionalized bilateral interactions annually, an unusually high number even by the standards of the US and its close allies. While this engagement alone cannot guarantee that there will be no spats or friction between China and US, it does provide channels to express worries, concerns or dissatisfaction to the other side and get feedback directly, which in turn helps defuse tensions and prevent miscalculations, misjudgments and escalation.
That said, China and the US still have much to do to build a new pattern of rising and established powers relations. Both countries should do more to reduce mutual suspicions and defuse regional tensions. Here are some steps they could take.
First, China and the US should engage in a serious dialogue about the future trajectory of the East Asian order. The region is in the midst of a power flux, and the existing order established during the Cold War and based on ideological antipathy and military confrontation now lags far behind the new reality. East Asia is today the arena for China-US competition for influence and the source of much of the mistrust. The 1972 Nixon visit to China and the ensuing normalization of relations between China and the US was the first serious attempt by the United States to adjust the order. That “grand bargain” helped usher in a golden era in East Asia. Today, with simmering tensions in the region and growing suspicion and mistrust between China and the US, the two countries should adopt a strategic vision and aim to strike a second “grand bargain” on the future of the East Asian order. This bargain should encompass a future vision for the East Asian order, consider the adjustments and compromises that need to be made, and how they can be made, and specify what role China, the US and other stakeholders should play in the reconstruction of the order.
Second, China and the US should hold direct dialogues on the rights and boundaries of air and maritime surveillance in EEZs. One of the major irritants in China-US relations is the surveillance that takes place in China’s EZZ, which for the past decade has caused serious standoffs and confrontations between the two militaries and placed bilateral relations under great strain. It has also aroused Chinese suspicions that the US is seeking to contain China. While it is not realistic to hope the US will abandon its “right” to surveillance in international commons, an informal understanding concerning the frequency, scope, and pre-surveillance notification could be feasible, and would remove one of the most volatile irritants in the relationship.
Third, China should engage with its neighbors to develop a code of conduct for the maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas. While China and the other claimants are unlikely to forgo their claims to the rocks and reefs, they can all agree to deal with the issue peacefully. As a rising power and the major claimant, China has an important responsibility to defuse regional tensions and work with other parties to find an acceptable solution for the co-development of the maritime resources and a peaceful resolution of the disputes. Building on that, China, the US, and other countries in East Asia could then try to establish an inclusive security arrangement that guarantees peace and stability in the region.
Wei Zongyou is a professor of International Relations at Center for American Studies, Fudan University, China. Previously, he worked as Vice Dean at Institute of International and Diplomatic Affairs, Shanghai International Studies University. The views expressed here are all his own.