from Asia Unbound

Reading Ramo on China--why he’s right and wrong

April 12, 2010

Blog Post

More on:

United States


Diplomacy and International Institutions

This past weekend, I happened to come upon an article on by my good friend Joshua Ramo (“Hu’s Visit: Finding a Way Forward on U.S.-China Relations,” April 8, 2010). It is a great piece, not because Joshua gets everything right (or even agrees with me on very much!); he doesn’t. Rather, Joshua’s article matters because he’s an innovative thinker and is bringing a novel perspective to the challenging issue of U.S.-China relations, and we don’t have enough of that these days.

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets with China's President Hu Jintao at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, April 12, 2010. (Jim Young/Reuters)

The basic premise of Joshua’s argument is that we need to carve out a new path forward with China. Not too much to disagree with there. He calls this new path “co-evolution”—China must have a say in the rules of the game moving forward but in return it must stop doing things that put global stability at risk. It strikes me as a neat way of linking Bob Zoellick’s responsible stakeholder idea with the now much beleaguered idea of a G-2. The real problem, of course, is that Joshua still gives the United States (or perhaps the West more broadly) the right to say what constitutes dangerous behavior. That is fine by me, but then “co-evolution” doesn’t really take us very far from where we are today.

Joshua also suggests that we get rid of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), which he views as “slow moving…and largely irrelevant.” His model would be the cooperation that the United States and China exhibited in reaction to the global financial crisis, which he views as informal and more spontaneous.

On the face of it, this is an attractive notion. Who doesn’t like spontaneous and informal more than slow-moving and irrelevant? Unfortunately, I am not really sure how much the United States really coordinated with the Chinese to address the global financial crisis; both countries launched large stimulus packages for domestic economic reasons. Was there more than that? As far as I can tell, Washington is still working hard to get Beijing to move on the renminbi. And much as I agree with Joshua implicitly that the S&ED has yet to achieve anything of real significance or substance, it is hard to imagine that informal, spontaneous meetings will bring about real progress on issues such as clean energy cooperation, environmental protection, or military-to-military cooperation. These are issues that would seem to benefit from a consistent set of dialogues with established objectives and concrete results. The S&ED may need to be rejiggered, but it probably isn’t time to dump it altogether.

Finally, Joshua suggests that we need to move quickly—before 2012—because the next generation of Chinese leaders is younger and likely more suspicious of the United States. Here, I can only hope that he is completely off-base, if only because little in the current generation of leaders headed by Hu Jintao has suggested a Chinese leadership inclined to be anything but suspicious of the United States and its motives.