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Not Too Fast With China

Authors: Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy, and Brad Glosserman, Executive Director, Pacific Forum CSIS
November 13, 2009


With President Barack Obama making his first trip to China, it is vital that the two countries have a clear understanding of what they expect from each other. Failure to reconcile expectations could derail a partnership that is increasingly critical to the management of pressing global issues.

Recent discussions here with foreign policy and security analysts reveal a basis for cooperation: Chinese and American strategists share concerns and focus on the same problems. Yet, probe deeper and divergences quickly emerge. For example, while both countries agree that North Korea's nuclear ambitions undermine regional peace and stability, the precise nature of that threat differs: Chinese worry about instability emanating from the Korean Peninsula that could damage development plans; Americans fear nuclear proliferation and a threat to their allies in Northeast Asia.

In our discussions, Chinese strategists attributed each problem - be it North Korea, Iran, or South Asia - to that particular country's desire to create a new relationship with the U.S. Consequently, it was the U.S. that had the chief responsibility to fix each situation. China had little or no role to play. And when China could contribute, its influence was invariably limited. The North Korean example was illustrative: China's job was to create a venue where the two sides could talk.

This reluctance to shoulder more international responsibilities has several roots. The first is Deng Xiaoping's admonition that China "should adopt a low profile and never take the lead." Despite China's meteoric rise to become the world's third largest economy, that mentality prevails. Chinese Ambassador to the UK Fu Ying has written that "there is a long way to go for China to reach the level of world power. It may be destined to contribute more to world peace and development - as many in the West are calling for - but this will be an incremental process, and China can't play a role in the world beyond its capacity."

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