he U.S.-China relationship is commonly understood as needing more: more dialogues, more trade, more understanding, and more opportunities to cooperate. Yet the reality is just the opposite. In order to succeed, the relationship, ironically, needs less: less hype, less pressure, less competition, and less bilateralism.
As Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai noted just prior to the visit of Vice President Xi Jinping to the United States in February 2012, the two countries suffer a trust deficit. Certainly, recent polls in both countries bear out his assessment. In a 2012 China Daily USA-Gallup poll of more than 2,000 Americans, only slightly more than 30 percent believed that China’s growing influence in the world was a good thing. And in a 2012 Committee of 100 poll of more than 4,000 Chinese citizens, only 56 percent considered the United States trustworthy.
But there is good news as well. In those same two polls, more than 80 percent of Americans believed that having a close relationship with China was a good thing, and over 60 percent of Chinese thought that the U.S.-China relationship was either important, very important, or China’s most important relationship.
So how can the United States and China build on the desire of people in both countries to get the relationship right? Vice Minister Cui suggests that “nurturing and deepening mutual trust” is “a major issue that both sides must give full attention to and seriously address.” How to build that trust, however, is the critical question.
As a first step, the two countries need to move away from the mind-set that more is better. Rather than incorporating even more issues into the bilateral relationship, the objective should be to establish a manageable policy environment in which trust can develop. Specifically, it means taking steps to minimize competition, set aside intractable issues, and keep global and regional issues where they belong—in a multilateral framework.
By taking these steps, the two countries may create a constructive framework that will allow for greater cooperation.
The competition quagmire
If channeled properly, competition is healthy. It spurs scientific progress, results in record-breaking sporting events, and contributes to ever-greater efficiencies in economic productivity. However, in the context of the U.S.-China relationship, when politicians and pundits in both countries play up competition and rivalry, they undermine the potential of cooperation and partnership. In a 2011 New York Times opinion piece, Tsinghua scholar Yan Xuetong, for example, describes the U.S.- China relationship as a “zero sum game” and a “race for global supremacy.” In his eyes, the two countries are engaged in a “battle for people’s hearts and minds” and that is what “will determine who eventually prevails.” Cast aside in his analysis is any notion of collaboration or even accommodation by the two countries.
Virtually any issue is fair game as a spur to U.S.-China competition. The Pew Charitable Trust publishes an annual assessment of investment in, and deployment of, clean energy technologies by G-20 countries, “Who’s Winning the Clean Energy Race.” The report offers useful information such as comparisons of investment in different clean energy sectors and the level of venture capital attracted to clean energy in each country.Unfortunately it has also become the catalyst for attention- grabbing headlines such as “The U.S. Retakes the Lead from China in Clean Energy Race,” or “China First in Clean Energy.” Instead of the report serving as a means of understanding what one country might learn from another, it has become another focus of U.S.-China rivalry.
Fostering competition between the United States and China has also become a cottage industry for commentators outside both countries. In a 2011 post for CNN online, for example, the Dean of the Singapore- based Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Ambassador Kishore Mahbubani, argued, “Let me give you a very simple example. The most shocking thing I’ve learned recently for someone who lived in New York for 10 and a half years is that the Tappan Zee Bridge, which carries thousands of cars can only survive another 10 years. Isn't that shocking? In the meantime, while you can't hold up one bridge across one river, guess what, China is building the world’s fastest trains and the world’s best airports.”
One may or may not agree with Ambassador Mahbubani’s analysis, but the real issue is why China’s development boom offers a useful or relevant critique of America’s aging infrastructure.
The motivation for stressing competition may be a good one in each case. Yan Xuetong wants to encourage China to think about morality in its foreign policy; the Pew Foundation urges all countries to do more in terms of developing and utilizing clean energy technologies, and Ambassador Mahbubani states explicitly that he is trying to encourage the United States to focus on what matters and get its act together. Nonetheless, by framing the desire for improved policies in one country as a competition between the two, these competitive lenses contribute to foster an antagonistic rather than cooperative relationship.
Resisting the temptation to superimpose a competitive framework on every aspect of the relationship would go far to reducing the devastating zero-sum mentality that such a framework promotes.
The intractable issues
A second obstacle to productive U.S.-China relations is the set of intractable issues that remain at or near the top of each side’s agenda one year after the next with little real progress. China wants the United States to stop selling arms to Taiwan, to stop meeting with the Dalai Lama, and to lift its embargo on the sale of dual use technology. The United States, in turn, wants China to protect the intellectual property rights of its companies, stop manipulating its currency, and make some noticeable progress on political reform.
For many in each country, these issues are benchmarks of progress—or more accurately the lack of progress—in the bilateral relationship. The failure to make significant progress on any of them therefore contributes to a sense of futility in the bilateral relationship. Even worse, these issues impede or threaten to impede progress in other areas of the relationship. The United States Congress has repeatedly threatened to punish China for its currency policy by levying stiff tariffs on Chinese goods.China, in turn, has held the bilateral military-to-military dialogue hostage to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
While these issues cannot be ignored—they are priorities for both countries—they also should not be permitted to derail broader progress in the relationship. Two steps could help minimize the impact of these issues. The first would be to remove these intractable issues from a position of centrality in the bilateral dialogue. They could be located instead in small working groups of officials and experts that would be tasked with establishing benchmarks for progress on each of the issues.
Equally important, however, is for both countries to look outside the bilateral relationship to use multilateral frameworks to negotiate issues. Most issues—save perhaps U.S. arms sales to Taiwan—are not unique to the bilateral relationship but resonate deeply with other countries as well. The second step toward reducing pressure in the relationship, therefore, is to reinforce the role of multilateral dialogue in the U.S.-China relationship.
The multilateral advantage
The proliferation of issues to be covered in bilateral U.S.-China dialogues is dizzying. For many years, the relationship was dominated by a trifecta of concerns: trade, Taiwan, and human rights. Today, however, the U.S.-China relationship engages issues of Iran and nuclear proliferation, cyber-security, food and product safety, and Sudan, among many others. In fact, given the size of both economies and the globalized nature of the world today, there are few issues that do not engage the interests of both countries.
Ideally, of course, the United States and China could coordinate efforts—or at least structure parallel complementary efforts—to help address these myriad global challenges. While both countries for the most part articulate similar objectives with regard to resolution of these issues, their policies and priorities frequently differ, producing conflict rather than cooperation. Adding these issues to an already crowded agenda therefore yields few benefits and often exacerbates an already complicated U.S.-China relationship.
In this context, removing primary responsibility for resolution of these issues from the bilateral agenda to multilateral fora has several advantages. First, it reduces the pressure on the bilateral relationship to address and resolve the world’s many emergent challenges and instead can bring all the relevant actors to the table.Global issues by their nature affect many countries and necessitate multinational agreement and commitment to be addressed effectively.
Second, multilateral fora increase the range of solutions by increasing the number of potential players and the variety of acceptable approaches. As with global climate change, actors can often opt into agreements with different levels of commitment and at different times without threatening the overall success of the effort.
Finally, multilateral arenas offer the opportunity for both China and the United States to bring pressure to bear on the other to do the right thing. America’s failure to adopt aggressive measures to combat climate change and to safeguard adequately its financial and mortgage markets is a concern not only of China but also of the rest of the world. China can work with other countries to reinforce America’s responsibility, not only to its own economic prosperity but also to the stability of the global economy. Similarly, China’s inability to protect intellectual property rights or effectively manage the proliferation of cyber hacking emanating from within its borders is a concern voiced not only by the United States but also shared by the entire world. When necessary, therefore, multilateral fora allow both the United States and China to work with allies to effect change in the other.
Engaging the rest of the world does not mean ignoring each other. It means recognizing that the vast majority of issues that plague the bilateral relationship also present challenges in each country’s relations with the rest of the world. They are international problems that require multilateral solutions.
Pundits and policymakers in the United States are prone to say that no problem of global significance can be addressed without the cooperation of China and the United States. However, this raises expectations for a level of partnership that at this point in time cannot be met. As long as China and the United States bring different values, priorities, and policy approaches to the table, it will be challenging to find common ground. Overall, the nature of the current U.S.-China relationship suggests the need to lower rather than raise expectations.
And, of course, merely developing a more manageable agenda and dismantling the framework of competition will not be enough to build the trust that Vice Minister Cui and others seek. That requires more time and more effort. The development of real trust between the United States and China necessitates a number of more profound changes in the way in which the two countries approach each other. It demands clarity of intention, predictability of action, shared sensibilities, a willingness to give before one takes, and mutual respect.
Nonetheless, if the United States and China can begin the process by taking a step back to establish a new narrative for the relationship that minimizes competition, sets aside intractable issues, and keeps global and regional issues where they belong—in a multilateral framework—there will be the potential for the two countries, like the frog in the well, to take two steps forward for every one step back.