A Long March to Cooperation or to Antagonism? The United States and China in the 21st Century

Remarks to the U.S.-China Policy Foundation and China Daily USA

This is a year of anniversaries. It is the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of China Daily, which we have gathered to commemorate. It is the fortieth anniversary of Henry Kissinger’s initial, secret visit to Beijing. It is the seventieth anniversary of the Sino-American alliance against fascism and militarism that followed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

2011 also marks the centennial of the Chinese people’s repudiation of both foreign rule and imperial tradition. In 1911, Chinese patriots overthrew the Manchu-imposed Qing Dynasty to establish a weak and wobbly republic that quickly succumbed to military dictatorship. In 1949, they installed a Leninist political system and command economy that emulated the Soviet Union. In 1978, they peacefully reinvented themselves by combining Leninism with bureaucratic entrepreneurship in a marketizing economy. By the 1990s, the Chinese had crafted a novel system of “cadre capitalism,” which thoroughly blurs the distinction between private and state enterprise, links the boosterism of local politicians to profit-driven corporate management structures, and marries industrial policy to entrepreneurship.

Since 1911, China’s political economy has been the most volatile in the world. It now seems to have found an equilibrium that can fulfill the aspirations of Chinese nationalism, but this success has come through dramatic lurches brought about by trial and error, entailing appalling human costs. Relations between Americans and Chinese since 1911 have also swung between wild extremes — from mutual admiration to antipathy and from suspicion to infatuation and back again. As China returns to wealth and power under its newly invented Leninist-Confucianism, the pendulum is again swinging.

Most observers believe that the quality of relations between the United States and China will have a decisive influence on the course of the twenty-first century. Some have imagined a Sino-American partnership at the apex of global governance. Others have, much more realistically, I think, seen cooperation and competition between Chinese and Americans as taking place in the context of shifting or ad hoc coalitions of major nations. But everyone has recognized that, without collaboration between China and America, the world will be a more troubled, less secure, and less prosperous place. Problems ranging from climate change to dysfunctions in the global trading and investment regime cannot be tackled effectively without Sino-American cooperation and leadership.

Unfortunately, the prospects for such collaboration are at best uncertain. This is because both countries are having a hard time adjusting to the shifting balances of power and prestige between them. Managing the political, economic, and military contradictions between China and the United States has always required and continues to demand wise statesmanship backed by effective public diplomacy. These contradictions have been with us since the beginning of constructive engagement between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China forty years ago.

The Shanghai Communiqué of 1972 established a sound formula for coping with these contradictions. In it, America and China declared:

There are essential differences between China and the United States in their social systems and foreign policies. However, the two sides agreed that countries, regardless of their social systems, should conduct their relations on the principles of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states, non-aggression against other states, non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. International disputes should be settled on this basis, without resorting to the use or threat of force. The United States and the People’s Republic of China are prepared to apply these principles to their mutual relations.

This formula long helped us manage the differences in our respective political systems. On the international level, there was no strategic contradiction to be overcome, only a rectification to be done. The United States, over the objections of other allies in the Second World War, had insisted on recognition of China as a great power with representation in the United Nations Security Council. Once Washington’s Cold War-induced adamance that Taipei was the capital of China was overcome, Beijing was enabled to represent China internationally. (That’s yet another forty-year anniversary.) China has moved skillfully, by stages, into the universally accepted role of a respected senior partner in global governance.

Sino-American bilateral political interaction has been more contentious. During the Cold War, when American interests demanded self-restraint, we followed the Shanghai Communiqué’s formula of ideological reticence. But, once the strategic rationale for tactful silence had been superseded by the ideological triumphalism of the post-Cold War period, Americans became shrilly critical of China’s human-rights practices. It is quite clear that most in this country’spolitical elite doubt — indeed, do not accept — the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party’s governance of China. That is not, I think, because the CCP is Communist (whatever that now means) but because its rule has not been endorsed through free and fair elections.

For their part, few Chinese are favorably impressed by the incivility and dysfunction of contemporary American politics. But many Chinese continue to admire the civil liberties the U.S. political system has traditionally provided. To ensure the cooperation that is in the interest of both countries, we must overcome the mutual dislike — even contempt — that lies between our respective political elites. Both sides might do well to ponder the merits of a return to the mutual respect for differences that the Shanghai Communiqué prescribed. That will be difficult, but it is not impossible if leaders on both sides will only lead.

I don’t think Sino-American economic relations, despite their natural competitiveness, present difficulties comparable to those in the political sphere. I remember when China used to complain about its chronic trade deficit with America. These things are cyclical. More to the point, economic power, like gravity, is entirely attractive in nature. It does not repel. The mutually beneficial nature of economic exchanges between the U.S. and China is well understood by businesspersons, if not necessarily by economically challenged politicians on both sides. There are lots of frictions, but we shall overcome.

The ability of Americans and Chinese to transcend the implications of military rivalry for our overall relationship strikes me as much more problematic. The two sides have opted for different but ultimately compatible forms of preemptive military antagonism. Military planners in each have come to see the other as a formidable enemy against which to prepare to go to war. The U.S. and Chinese military-industrial establishments are caught in a feedback loop, with potentially dire consequences for both.

Ceremonial exchanges cannot conceal the fact that U.S.-China military relations are now characterized by overt antipathy and deeply imbedded mutual suspicion. U.S. Taiwan policy and aggressive surveillance activities along China’s periphery have caused the Chinese leadership to conclude that the United States is fundamentally hostile to China’s rising power. In turn, the United States sees China’s challenges to the total military dominance of the United States in East Asia as a threat and is responding accordingly.

The framework for managing military tensions over the Taiwan issue that the two sides worked out in 1979 and elaborated in 1982 has been abandoned. Neither side views the other as in compliance with the agreements that created this framework. Nothing has replaced them. In these circumstances, the growing prospect of a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue by the parties themselves serves, paradoxically, to accentuate rather than reduce Sino-American differences over Taiwan and related matters. China finds U.S. arms sales to Taiwan increasingly intolerable. So this issue, long finessed, is moving back to a more central role in our strategic interaction.

As a result, the two sides are entering into an increasingly overt and economically burdensome military rivalry. This rivalry promises to taint the overall relationship and diminish the prospects for cooperation in other arenas. It is not a minor matter for each side to have come to regard the other as its military peer competitor of choice. I spoke about the implications of this for the United States two weeks ago at Newport. I will not recapitulate the points I made there, except to repeat my conclusion: Current trends raise questions for both sides that call out for strategic vision and statecraft on the part of both. These trends emphasize the need for each of us to make a greater effort to understand both the circumstances and the perceptions of the other and to act accordingly as we pursue our respective national interests.

China Daily makes a vital contribution to this essential task by enhancing understanding of contemporary Chinese realities among Americans. That has been important in facilitating cooperation. It will, I believe, be even more important in the days to come.

My congratulations to China Daily on its thirtieth anniversary and to the U.S.-China Policy Foundation on its fifteenth. It’s important that both of you keep up your good work.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)

Washington, DC

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