The US and China are heading toward a more strained relationship with increased mutual distrust, a new study by David Shambaugh, the director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University has shown.
This will be the case no matter who wins the US presidential election and who fills the new Chinese Politburo next week, Shambaugh said.
“The competitive elements in the relationship are growing and becoming primary, while the cooperative ones are secondary and declining,” he added.
A senior US congressional staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that such a development could impact Taiwan by causing Beijing to further resent the Washington-Taipei relationship and putting new strains on arms sales, trade and diplomatic policies.
At the same time, Elizabeth Economy, the director of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that US-China relations would no longer be focused exclusively on trade, Taiwan and human rights.
“The next [US] president will have to work with China on virtually every global challenge,” she said. “China’s leaders no longer simply want to export their goods and services, they want to export their culture, their values and ideals.”
According to Shambaugh’s gloomy forecast, meetings between Washington and Beijing representatives are becoming more pro forma and “increasingly acrimonious.”
He said that beneath the surface of these official exchanges, mutual distrust is pervasive, with few officials on either side on a strong mission to cooperate with the other. Rows are breaking out over trade and investment conditions, technology, espionage and cyberattacks, as well as about global challenges like climate change, Syria, nuclear challenges like Iran and North Korea, and military postures in the Asia-Pacific region.
“As China’s global footprint has emerged onto every continent, it is increasingly bumping up against longstanding American interests — thus adding a global dimension the relationship has never had,” Shambaugh said.
While it is not unnatural that frictions should arise between a rising power and an established one, there is also a deep interdependence.
“To some extent, this helps to buffer the strategic competition and keep the relationship from becoming fully adversarial,” Shambaugh said, adding: “Given the global importance of US-China relations, this is a marriage in which divorce is not an option. The stakes are high. Whether [US] President Barack Obama or Republican challenger Mitt Romney win the presidential election, their China policies are likely to bear many commonalities.”
Both will seek to cooperate with China, but simultaneously adopt tougher trade and diplomatic policies towards it. Managing competition will become the overriding task of the new US and Chinese governments, and Shambaugh says this will require mutual pragmatism and mutual accommodation.
He finishes his report by saying: “It is not at all clear that the respective political cultures and political systems, national identities, social values and world views are conducive to a newly cooperative US-China relationship. It will be all the new leaders in Beijing and Washington can do to maintain a modicum of stability between the two sides.”