Sino-US relations : Rivals and partners in Asia

With the Six Party Talks to denuclearise North Korea once again on the ropes and the world reeling from a deepening financial crisis, the United States is looking to China for help. The Pentagon still views China as a rising and potentially threatening military power. But the State Department has been relying on China’s mediating skills in dealing with North Korea, and the Treasury Department dearly hopes that China will continue to buy US bonds and follow through on its own economic stimulus package.

China has a similarly bifocal view of the US, particularly when it comes to the issue of regional security in Asia. “My country’s view of the United States has been very divided,” reported Zhu Feng, the deputy director of the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Peking University, at a seminar in Washington, DC on Monday, sponsored by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. “We have hawks, Chinese neoconservatives, who always argue that the US is imperialistic. And we also have moderates who believe that the US is always China’s partner,” Zhu explained.

And it also intimidates. “Potential pre-emption from the US as the dominant power vis-a -vis us as a great potential power is always a very scary scenario for us,” Zhu observed. China’s rise in international affairs, Zhu noted, has been peaceful. Before 1979, “we exported revolution and were willing to fight anyone... But in the 30 years since, China has not been involved in a single war”. Nevertheless, Beijing has presided over a large-scale military modernisation over the last decade. According to Zhu, however, there is no contradiction in the modernisation of the military. “We have a strong sense of national pride. We believe that we are a global power. No great power just sits around and waits with out-of-date military equipment.”

Because China and the US are both Pacific powers, it is not surprising that their sometimes schizophrenic views of each other are thrown into sharp relief around the question of regional security. “China always is a proactive participant in regional security cooperation. It’s the only way for us to realise our security and prosperity,” Zhu argued. Even though the US is not a member of certain regional institutions Zhu maintained that China sees

US participation in regional security as critical. “I don’t think there are any Chinese who think of any future regional security framework without US participation,” he said. “I don’t think that China has any ambition to keep the US out.”

Mitchell Reiss, diplomat-in-residence at the College of William and Mary, disagreed. “I’m sceptical that China wants to institutionalise US cooperation in this manner,” he said. Reiss recalled that during his term as director of the Office of Policy Planning in the State Department, several years ago, China refused to participate in a policy exercise involving the Six Party Talks participants. “Beijing also worked hard to keep us out of the East Asia Summit,” Reiss added. “I don’t blame China for behaving in this manner. It was only 200 years ago that the US adopted the Monroe Doctrine toward our European friends to prevent them from interfering in our sphere of influence in Latin America. China can be forgiven for adopting a similar doctrine in China’s sphere of influence.”

The question for Michael Mastanduno, professor of government at Dartmouth College, was one of time horizon. In the short term, economic interdependence will drive China and the US to find common interests. Over the long term, as China grows in power, will it find acceptable a very prominent US role in the region? “It’s fair to say that the answer is no,” says Mastanduno. “And this,” he said, “is based on America’s own experience. When America proclaimed the Monroe Doctrine, it couldn’t enforce it. When it could, in 1898, it did whatever it could to throw the Europeans out. As China gets more powerful, and China has great power aspirations, it is not unreasonable to believe that some version of the Monroe Doctrine will inform its policy.”

Mastanduno also pointed to a larger gap between the US and China. “There is time to see if the great liberal experiment — using economic cooperation to transform a rising power into a more accommodating one — will work. If it doesn’t work, we’ll probably have time to switch strategies.” Looking ahead to the Obama administration, Reiss said that the “first step is to recognise the centrality of the relationship. I can’t think of a more important relationship in this century than the US-China relationship.” Zhu Feng agreed. “China’s participation in the bailout is a vivid reflection of our growing interdependence. If the US is down, China will be down too.” For him, joint participation in regional security discussions could accentuate the positive. “Strategically, it’s not easy to dissolve the concerns of both countries,” he concluded. “We need a way to reduce antagonism and bump up the energy to a new level — through regional security cooperation.” — IPS