The Impasse of US-China Relations

David Lai @ The Diplomat, October 16, 2015

Chinese President Xi Jinping made an official visit to the United States in late September 2015 with great expectations. The top priority on his agenda was his determination to seek official U.S. endorsement of his initiative for a “new model of major-country relations” and to set U.S.-China relations on the right course accordingly. Unfortunately, given U.S. apprehension of Xi’s heavy agenda and frustrations over repeated clashes with China in the Western Pacific in recent years (even in the days prior to the summit), President Barack Obama did not answer Xi’s calls and the Chinese president returned to China virtually empty-handed..

Power transition

Power transition is a struggle among the big nations (big primarily in terms of their geography and demographics) within the international system. It is between a previously underdeveloped and disgruntled yet currently rising big nation that challenges the powerful stakeholders of the system. The struggle is about the international political, economic, and security order that reflect the values and interests of the most powerful nations.

The Chinese argued at the outset that power transition was a Western experience, and the Thucydides Trap should not apply to China’s relations with the United States. However, Chinese leaders have gradually learned that China’s rising power is creating forces beyond their control and making the China-U.S. relations more contentious. Thus, in an attempt to ease the U.S. concern, China put forward a “Peaceful Development” call in 2003, promising not to challenge U.S. supremacy and not to repeat the mistakes made by past great powers.

On the surface, the Chinese move is a step in the right direction. However, it does not guarantee enduring and positive China-U.S. relations forever, as areas of contention have continued to trouble the two nations. In a 2013 meeting with Obama at the Sunnylands Resort, California, Xi took the Peaceful Development promise a step further, turning it into a guideline for U.S.-China relations (and for other big nation relations as well). Xi’s initiative has three action codes: China and the United States should strive for 1) no confrontation, 2) mutual respect for core interests, and 3) win-win cooperation.

Deciphering Xi’s Model

Xi’s model is remarkably simple; yet loaded with heavy requirements. First, Xi holds that although China and the United States have many conflicts, the two nations should not take war as an option to settle their differences; and if the United States and China can make a pledge on this point, tensions between the two nations will not automatically become a test of will or set the two nations’ war machines in motion.

Second, strategic trust must be based on mutual respect. On this point, Xi insists that China has suffered a “respect deficit” from the United States. In other words, the U.S. challenge to China’s form of government, its quest for territorial integrity, and China’s “rightful place in the world,” all of which are China’s core interests. Xi reminds the United States that China is now more powerful and deserves due respect accordingly.

Finally, Xi reiterates the Peaceful Development promise that his rising China has no intention to uproot the United States or the U.S.-led international order; China does not seek unilateral gains in the competition with the United States; and the China-U.S. competition will not be existential (zero-sum) but instead will be mutually beneficial (win-win).

U.S. Ambivalence

United States does not see eye to eye with China over its core interests. For instance, top among China’s stated core interests is the preservation of the Communist Party-ruled political system. The United States can deal with the Chinese government, but it cannot turn a blind eye to what it sees as the misconduct of China’s repressive regime. With a fundamental difference on this issue, conflict, rather than respect, is the normal state of affairs.

Another top Chinese core interest is about China’s territorial integrity. This is a contentious and unsettling issue and China is currently engaged in intense territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas. Although the United States does not take sides on the disputes, it does not agree that the disputed territories form part of China’s territorial integrity. Asking the United States to respect this Chinese core interest is like putting the cart before the horse, and the U.S. will not endorse it.

From a cultural perspective, U.S.-China interactions are difficult because the two nations do not sing the same tune. Xi likes to talk about lofty principles and express vision on a large scale. He sees the U.S.-China relationship as complicated; but like an entangled fishing net – once the head rope is pulled, the meshes will open. In other words, if the two nations’ leaders can grasp the key link, they can set the complicated issues in order; and from Xi’s view, the key link is strategic trust and mutual respect.

Read more The Impasse of US-China Relations

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