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Reality in U.S.-China Relations

Author: Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies
January 14, 2011

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The events of the past year seem to have led the United States to adopt a harder-eyed approach with China. Advancing cooperation is still the order of the day, but the run-up to Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to the United States has been characterized by an unusually frank set of speeches and commentaries by senior U.S. officials that highlight the systemic challenges of the relationship. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called pointedly for China to live up to its commitment to universal values. Defense Secretary Robert Gates anticipates "evolutionary growth" in military-to-military relations, not "breakthroughs or headlines." And Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has made clear that only when China makes progress on U.S. priorities--such as the reduction of trade and investment barriers, protection of intellectual property rights, and currency revaluation--will the United States make progress on Chinese priorities, such as the export of high-tech products and market economy status.

This new reality comes at a price. The long-held hope that the United States and China would sit down together and sketch out a path to achieve global peace and stability has become a more distant aspiration. Such mutuality of interests, priorities, and values are not yet shared.

Instead, clear-eyed framing of the bilateral relationship and the absence of a deferential U.S. diplomatic tone signal hard bargaining and the beginning of difficult work to develop the much-needed "habits of cooperation" Clinton has noted.

Why the change?

A year can be a long time in the world of foreign policy, and 2010 was especially long for China. A series of almost unimaginably poor decisions by Beijing has raised serious concerns globally about precisely what kind of power China will be. The year got off to a bad start with the cyberhacking and Google debacle in January. China's foreign ministry compounded the problem by bullying the country's neighbors over long-disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea, reflexively defending North Korean aggression against South Korea, and supporting an embargo of rare earths against Japan in the wake of a Chinese fishing boat collision with Japanese patrol boats.

The already dismal year concluded with a bang when Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace prize. The foreign ministry's tirade against Liu and the Nobel Committee only underscored to the rest of the world the great distance China has yet to travel to truly meet its potential as a global power.

China's missteps and miscalculations also opened the door for a reassertion of U.S. leadership, particularly in Asia. President Barack Obama, Clinton, and Gates crisscrossed Asia to reaffirm ties with traditional allies, broaden relations with newer partners and offer reassurance of a deep and abiding U.S. commitment to the region.

Where to from Here?

The United States must now capitalize on its unexpected lift in Asia. Progress, however, on meeting U.S. economic, political, and security priorities will not derive primarily from the upcoming presidential meeting. While Obama needs to set the tone, the meetings are largely peripheral to the real work at hand.

Rather, progress with China depends on three things. First, as Geithner has stated, the United States has to get its economy back on track. This will depend primarily on what happens at home, not only making smart decisions about R&D, education, and infrastructure but also creating incentives for investment in the United States. The United States shouldn't blame China for where its economy is today, nor is China is responsible for where the U.S. economy will be tomorrow. Without rejuvenating its economy, however, the United States cannot remain a global leader.

Second, Washington needs to remember that its bilateral leverage is--and always has been--limited. The United States' greatest leverage arises from working with its allies to engage (and sometimes pressure) China. Success, whether on advancing climate change or rolling back unfair Chinese trade and investment policies, has come when the United States finds common cause with others.

Finally, progress in the U.S.-China relationship ultimately depends on China as well. Chinese foreign policy elite debate all matter of policy. Already in private conversations, Chinese analysts are suggesting that in the wake of China's 2010 policy travails, they are more interested in seeking common ground with the United States. On the sensitive issue of how to handle North Korea, important voices such as Fudan professor Shen Dingli and Beida professor Zhu Feng are proposing a rethink of China's policy. These domestic voices are the real key to future effective U.S.-China cooperation.

The dream of a robust U.S.-China partnership to lead the world through the thicket of ever-proliferating global challenges remains. But for now, dreaming is no substitute for the hard work of negotiating reality.

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