U.S.-China Tensions: What Must Kerry Do?

U.S.-China Tensions: What Must Kerry Do?

A China File Conversation

Dorinda Elliott:

On a recent trip to China, I heard a lot of scary talk of potential war over the disputed Diaoyu Islands—this from both senior intellectual types and also just regular people, from an elderly calligraphy expert to a middle-aged history professor. People seemed to blame the U.S. for encouraging Japan in pushing its claims over the islands. (The assumption being that the U.S. wants to contain China, to keep China down.) So is war a real danger, and what should the U.S. do to defuse tensions?

Two weeks into John Kerry's tenure as Secretary of State, Nina Hachigian, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, who co-authored (Simon & Schuster, 2008), argues that there is much to be concerned about in U.S.-China relations.

Andy Wong/Getty Images
Then U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry is followed by embassy staff members upon his arrival at Tsinghua University May 26, 2009 in Beijing.

An excerpt of her :

“Beyond the immediate issues, a broader aspect of U.S. policy toward China needs attention: The United States and China have no shared vision for what their future bilateral relationship could or should look like. They have not articulated a clear understanding of how they could continue to co-exist in peace a decade or two down the road, and they need to develop a shared, tangible idea for the future of the relationship.

Without a credible alternative, the default prediction for the interaction between a rising power such as China and an established power such as the United States is based on what has come before: inevitable violent conflict. As China grows, the uncertainty about what will come next in the relationship will only increase. With no positive vision, some Americans will picture a much stronger, more aggressive China that the United States will need to confront, and many Chinese will imagine that America will inevitably seek to preserve what they see as its waning hegemony by lashing out even more than it already does. These dark visions could become self-fulfilling prophecies. Because the United States and China do not know where they are headed, they cannot know what policy steps to take now.”


Elizabeth Economy

Elizabeth Economy is the C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). The author of The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future (Cornell University Press, 2004), Economy also co-edited China Joins the World: Progress and Prospects (with Michel Oksenberg, Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1999) and The Internationalization of Environmental Protection (with Miranda Schreurs, Cambridge University Press, 1997). She has published articles in foreign policy and scholarly journals, including Foreign Affairs, Harvard Business Review, and Foreign Policy, and op-eds in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and International Herald Tribune. Economy is vice chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of China and serves on the board of the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development. She is a frequent guest on nationally broadcast television and radio programs, has testified before Congress on numerous occasions, and regularly consults for U.S. government agencies and companies. Economy is currently writing two books: one on China's rise and its geopolitical and strategic implications, and another, with Michael Levi, on China’s global quest for resources (forthcoming, Oxford University Press, 2013). Economy received her B.A. from Swarthmore College, her A.M. from Stanford University, and her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. In 2008, she received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Vermont Law School. 

 I think Nina is right to identify a lack of shared vision as a serious challenge in the U.S.-China relationship. Unfortunately, I don’t think that at this point in time it is possible to have such a shared vision—beyond what we have always had, namely a stated commitment to peace and stability in the Asia Pacific and to free and open markets. I am fairly sure, for example, that part of our vision for the relationship includes a vastly reformed China (economically and politically)—probably in ways that the Chinese leadership is not interested in reforming, or at least not interested in reforming at the pace we would like. And China’s vision undoubtedly includes some changes in the U.S. role in the world that many here would find unpalatable.

In terms of what President Obama or the Secretary of State or Treasury could do within the very real constraints of our two countries’ differing visions and interests, I would suggest at a bare minimum laying out a plan for strengthening our economic relationship. It would be beneficial, for example, for both President Obama and soon-to-be-President Xi to lay out all the advantages that accrue from our bilateral trade to reinforce to people in both countries the benefits of working together. I don’t think either leader does even that much sufficiently. With that as a starting point, perhaps leaders in both countries could establish a two-three year time frame for completion of a bilateral investment treaty and a five to ten year negotiation period for a free trade agreement. We need to appreciate the benefits of the relationship and have concrete objectives for taking it to the next level.

To Dinda’s point about the growing talk of war and U.S. containment in China, it is really up to the Chinese leadership to manage this challenge. Frankly, to date, I don’t think that the Chinese leaders have seen it in their interest to dampen this type of rhetoric. In fact, at many points, the Chinese media have clearly stoked nationalism within the Chinese people. Belief within China that the United States is trying to contain China is not a function of the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute, it is a long-standing, frequently articulated perspective by some segments of society. Even U.S. efforts to work with China on environmental protection have been labeled in the past as efforts to keep China from growing economically. So while I agree that the United States should try to avoid giving substance to the Chinese containment narrative, I don't see this as primarily a U.S. responsibility. 

Andrew J. Nathan

Andrew J. Nathan is Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. He is also chair of the steering committee of the Center for the Study of Human Rights and chair of the Morningside Institutional Review Board (IRB) at Columbia. Nathan served as chair of the Department of Political Science, chair of the Executive Committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and director of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute. Before coming to Columbia in 1971, he taught at the University of Michigan. His teaching and research interests include Chinese politics and foreign policy, the comparative study of political participation and political culture, and human rights. Nathan is co-chair of the board of Human Rights in China, a member of the board of Freedom House, and a member of the Advisory Committee of Human Rights Watch, Asia, which he chaired from 1995 to 2000.  He is the regular Asia book reviewer for Foreign Affairs magazine and a member of the editorial boards of the Journal of Democracy, The China Quarterly, The Journal of Contemporary China, China Information, and others.Professor Nathan is the author and co-author of numerous books, including, Peking Politics, 1918-1923 (University of California Press, 1976); Chinese Democracy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1985); China’s Crisis (Columbia University Press, 1990); and The Tiananmen Papers, co-edited with Perry Link (Public Affairs, 2001); among others.Nathan’s articles have appeared in World Politics, Daedalus, The China Quarterly, Journal of Democracy, Asian Survey, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, The Asian Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, the International Herald Tribune, and elsewhere. His research has been supported by the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Henry Luce Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, and others.Professor Nathan received a B.A. in History, summa cum laude (1963), an M.A. in East Asian Regional Studies (1965), and a Ph.D. in Political Science (1971) from Harvard University.

Talk is cheap, and in a paradoxical way I think the Obama pivot to Asia — or rebalancing, as the administration preferred to rename it—sends the right signal to Beijing. To be sure, it is hard for any observer — even us, much less policy makers in Beijing—to figure out what American strategy really is.  I sometimes even wonder whether it’s possible for a country with two parties that alternate in power, three branches of government, fifteen fairly independent executive departments, and 535 entrepreneurial legislators, to have a coherent strategy. For that very reason, the strategy has to be revealed in practice before can be understood. In practice, U.S. policy since Nixon has been to welcome and even assist in the rise of China. At the same time, U.S. policy has been to maintain and not diminish our longstanding strategic position in Asia—the alliances, the naval presence, the troop deployments, and all the rest.

All the talk of war exhaustion, the budget deficit, the fiscal cliff, and the sequester, and of the impact of these things on the U.S. military have understandably led to doubts both here and in Asia about whether the U.S. will continue to sustain its position in Asia. The pivot intended to signal that it would. Time will tell whether it actually does.

Either way, the Chinese need to know where the U.S. really stands. It’s understandable that they will test the U.S. in rhetoric and in action to find out where Washington’s bottom line lies. We American observers will find out the answer along with China.

Orville Schell

Orville Schell is the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. He is a former professor and Dean at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Schell is the author of fifteen books, ten of them about China, and a contributor to numerous edited volumes. His most recent books are Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the Twenty-first Century (Random House, 2013) (co-authored with John Delury), Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-La from the Himalayas to Hollywood (Metropolitan Books, 2000), The China Reader: The Reform Years (Vintage, 1998), and Mandate of Heaven: The Legacy of Tiananmen Square and the Next Generation of China's Leaders (Simon & Schuster, 1994). He is also a contributor to such magazines as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, The Nation, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Granta, Wired, Newsweek, Mother Jones, The China Quarterly, and The New York Review of Books.Schell graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard University in Far Eastern History, was an exchange student at National Taiwan University in the 1960s, and earned a Ph.D. (Abd) at the University of California, Berkeley in Chinese History. He worked for the Ford Foundation in Indonesia, covered the war in Indochina as a journalist, and has traveled widely in China since the mid-1970s.He is a Fellow at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University, a Senior Fellow at the Annenberg School of Communications at USC, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Schell was a Fellow at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and the recipient of many prizes and fellowships, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Overseas Press Club Award, and the Harvard-Stanford Shorenstein Prize in Asian Journalism.

I’ve just arrived in Beijing to catch the waning fireworks of the Chinese New Year celebrations, smack in the middle of an interim time bracketed by the two big official congresses, the first held by the Party last November and the second scheduled for the government to make its leadership transition this March. There’s a feeling in the air that big policy issues have been left waiting. U.S.-China relations are among those challenges left hanging. Indeed, with the U.S. election, President Obama's cabinet shuffle, and the ongoing game of musical chairs churning the White House and the Department of State, the same can be said of the climate in Washington.

So, Nina Hachigian’s description of U.S.-China relations as lacking any new, clear vision remains true. At the same time, there are areas of worrisome tension growing, especially around maritime issues. Even though Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, China’s next president, has said that he would like to see U.S.-China relations have a fresh start, it is unlikely that there will be a major “re-set” any time soon. Both Beijing and Washington seem far too root-bound by their own issues and inner- and inter-party politics to step out boldly into any kind of new mutual foreign policy framework.

However, what can at least happen—and should happen—is an effort by both presidents Obama and Xi to make contact as soon as possible to affirm in a very public way their intentions to upgrade and then carefully cultivate a better bilateral relationship.

If President Obama’s charge is largely a symbolic one, the practical question of then managing the relationship should logically go to Vice President Biden, who has adequate rank, now knows Xi as well as any American official, is a voluble, good-hearted person who is perfectly matched to the task of thawing out the freeze of formality that often enshrouds U.S.-China exchanges. What the U.S. side has lacked these past few years is precisely a Hank Paulson-like, go-to, China person of sufficient stature with whom the Chinese feel comfortable. 

Of course, if such a scheme of things is going to be successful in establishing a more personal diplomatic synapse between the two countries, a person comparable in status must be levitated on the Chinese side. When Hillary Clinton tried to pinch hit in this role, she found herself pared with Dai Bingguo, which was not only a mismatch in terms of stature, but never really catalyzed itself into a truly “special relationship.” 

Simply put, if there are not going to be any big policy framework breakthroughs between the U.S. and China, the very least that we should have is two demonstrable custodians who have been specially designated on both sides to guide and oversee this crucial relationship.

Dorinda Elliott is Editor at Large at ChinaFile. In her “day job,” she is Global Affairs Editor at Condé Nast Traveler, where she spearheads coverage of global issues and corporate social...
Elizabeth Economy is the C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). The author of The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s...
Andrew J. Nathan is Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. He is also chair of the steering committee of the Center for the Study of Human Rights and chair of the...
Orville Schell is the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. He is a former professor and Dean at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate...





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