The ‘Two Orders’ and the Future of China-U.S. Relations

The China-U.S. relationship may be the most complex relationship that has ever existed between two major powers. Ties between China and the United States are deepening, and at every level the interaction between the two countries is marked by both cooperation and antagonism. But upper-level policymakers on either side of the Pacific have different focal points when it comes to China-U.S. relations. Chinese leaders are most concerned with keeping the U.S. from upsetting their country’s internal order under Communist Party leadership. The U.S., however, sees the relationship mainly in terms of the challenge that China poses to the international order, which the U.S. attempts to lead. This contradiction between “two orders” or “two supremacies” lies at the heart of the fraught relationship between the two nations.

Ever since the founding of “New China” in 1949, China’s foreign and domestic policies have both served the same goal: to maintain internal political stability under the leadership of the Communist Party. At the beginning of the Korean War, the CCP’s Central Committee issued a directive calling on Party members to “annihilate reactionary pro-U.S. thought, dispel misguided fears about the U.S., and encourage an attitude of enmity, scorn, and contempt toward the U.S.” In the 1950s, the CCP vehemently denounced speeches by U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that advocated a policy of “peaceful evolution” in socialist countries. Even in the 1970s, the honeymoon period of China-U.S. relations during which the two countries jointly opposed Soviet expansion, the theme of upholding the primacy of CCP leadership resurfaced again and again. In recent years, condemnations of the United States for violating China’s internal order have appeared frequently in the discourse of the CCP and the mainstream Chinese media. Accusing the U.S. of trying to incite a “color revolution” in China, supporting independence for Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Tibet, and upsetting the stability of Hong Kong, both Party and press call upon the Chinese people to resist U.S. schemes to infiltrate China with its subversive policies and ideas.

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In marked contrast to this, America’s China policy centers on China’s attitude toward the United States as a global hegemon. From the Sino-Soviet alliance to China’s support for North Vietnam in the 1960s and ’70s, the U.S. viewed China as an enemy because it posed a threat to U.S. supremacy in the Asia-Pacific region. When the Nixon administration reversed America’s oppositional stance toward China, it was because the Sino-Soviet split served U.S. global interests, not because of any “positive” changes in Chinese domestic policy.

There is no doubt that the U.S. is trying to influence China’s political and economic development by various means. But its motives are ideological: Americans believe that if China were to implement the political reforms that they hope to see, it would more quickly assimilate into the current global economic order and international security system, and likely behave according to the rules that the U.S. has put forth. What the United States fears most is an ascendant China casting off the present international order and charting its own course, and in the process elbowing the U.S. out of Asia. In other words, as long as the U.S. believes that China has no long-term plans to overturn American hegemony, it is willing to tolerate China’s growing strength and its “restrictive” internal policies.

In order to establish a new kind of great-power relationship between China and the U.S., the problem of “two orders” first needs to be dealt with. Only if the U.S. respects—and does not challenge—China’s basic political system and the rule of the Communist Party, will it be able to persuade China to do the same vis-a-vis America’s leadership position in the world. The inverse is true as well. This is what “mutual respect” between the U.S. and China really entails.

I’ve often asked my American friends for their opinions on this question. “Most Americans,” I say, “recognize that China has made huge progress in economic development and standard of living over the past 30 years. Many Chinese would say that these improvements stem from the leadership of the Communist Party. You might have reservations about this—but would you go so far as to say, ‘Despite CCP leadership, China has still made great progress’?" My friends are often at a loss for an answer. But we all know that political correctness dictates that U.S. leaders cannot publically express any support for the internal order maintained by the Communist Party.

I often hear Americans say, “China has made great progress in recent years under the international system headed by the United States. America’s global leadership role isn’t an obstacle to Chinese economic development. Isn’t U.S. economic power actually beneficial to China? If that’s the case, why are so many Chinese resentful of America’s position of strength and its international conduct?” I too can offer no good answer to these questions.

Actually, Chinese and U.S. leaders have both made statements clarifying these questions. President Obama has said that “It is in America’s interest to see China succeed.” Top U.S. officials have reiterated that the U.S. has no intention of subverting China’s internal political order. From the 1980s and ’90s, when the Chinese government advocated establishing a new international economic and political order, to the present, when the focus has changed to moving the international economic and political order in a fairer and more equitable direction, the Party has made it clear in its official rhetoric that China is a beneficiary of, protector of, and constructive participant in the current international order. And Chinese leaders have repeatedly assured the U.S. that they have no intention of challenging America's position or of pushing the U.S. out of Asia. However, the public and the political elites of both countries are leery of each other’s promises, a symptom of the “strategic distrust” that still exists between the two nations.

Henry Kissinger has put forth the compelling idea that the future course of U.S.-China relations must be one of “co-evolution,” with both nations pursuing their own interests in a framework of mutual cooperation and competition. I believe that the main factor determining the future of Sino-American relations will be internal political and economic developments, not the struggle for supremacy in the Asia-Pacific region or a shift in which country is “on top.”

Some Americans argue that if China continues to challenge U.S. supremacy in Asia as well as its global interests, then the U.S. should consider taking “reactive measures,” even ones that destabilize China’s internal political order. Americans should be wary of such ideas. If the U.S. really were to do this, it would violate the tacit understanding that is the basis for cooperation between Chinese and U.S. leaders, thereby forcing China to challenge American interests on international issues in more provocative ways. And that is something that no one who cares about the long-term development of Sino-U.S. relations wants to see.