Mon, Dec 10, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Abraham M. Denmark on Taiwan: US-China relations in search of a foundation

As relations between Beijing and Washington trend toward a more explicitly competitive orientation, leaders on both sides are contending with an unstated challenge that has vexed policy makers since the end of the Cold War: what will be the fundamental basis for US-China relations? Though Chinese officials will often refer to US alliances in Asia as a relic of the Cold War, the reality is that the US-China relationship itself is a relic of the Cold War that (unlike US alliances in Asia) has not successfully redefined its fundamental purpose for the 21st century. Without an answer to that critical question, even competition will ring hollow as a basis for relations between the world’s two most powerful nations.

The decision by President Nixon to engage with Chairman Mao (毛澤東) was born out of the critical assessment that the Sino-Soviet split had made China a potential asset for the United States to use against the Soviet Union. By exploiting that opportunity, Washington was able to greatly intensify pressure on Moscow and hasten the success of George Kennan’s grand strategy of containment. Yet out of that great victory, no one has been able to determine the fundamental purpose of the US-China relationship. While the Clinton administration initially sought to use the lure of market access to encourage Beijing to improve its human rights record and liberalize politically, the rapid failure of that strategy again left a void. From that point on, the US strategy was to use its relationship with Beijing to encourage China to emerge as a country that supported and contributed to the post-war liberal order; or, in the words of then-Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick, encouraging China to be a “responsible stakeholder.”

The flaw with this approach is that, unlike during the Cold War, it is entirely one-sided. This was a US strategy, not a mutual strategy that both Beijing and Washington understood and approved. The results have therefore been predictably mixed: while China has joined multilateral institutions like the nuclear nonproliferation regime and the WTO, it has also sought to carve out exceptions for itself from international laws and norms it finds to be counter to its interests. China has therefore emerged as not a revolutionary power, but not entirely supportive of the status quo either. This again raises the question of the purpose of US-China relations — if not to counter the long-dead Soviet Union and not to shape China’s decision-making to be more responsible and supportive of the status quo, what is the ultimate purpose of US-China relations?

To date, the Trump administration’s answer has been to describe the relationship as fundamentally competitive. As described in its National Security Strategy, “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.” In the National Defense Strategy, the Trump administration goes further, declaring “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in US national security.”

Still, as currently defined, strategic competition is an inadequate foundation for relations between China and the United States. Not only is it inherently negative in its orientation, its objectives are also undefined. What are China and the United States competing over? What will it mean to “win” that competition? What happens to the country that “loses”?

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