Beijing and Washington Share Indeterminate Future

China and the United States aren't sure yet how they'll relate.

Now what? The ostensible goal of the Obama-Xi “shirtsleeves summit” was to head off the trajectory of a volatile U.S.-Chinese relationship that appeared to be sliding toward confrontation—and define a new cooperative direction, new understandings and a new framework. In this respect, it was a potentially important but modest beginning. Rapport amongst leaders is valuable, and Obama’s effort to create an informal climate for discussion, free from boilerplate talking points, is to be commended—and hopefully, regularized.

But at bottom, two fundamental strategic questions underlie the challenges facing a troubled, complex U.S.-Chinese relationship: First, has the combination of global interdependence and nuclear weapons made war between major powers obsolete? Second, can the United States and China adjust to their nascent roles? This means Washington acting as primus inter pares in a world of diffused power; and Beijing becoming a responsible steward shaping and providing public goods to a global system, upon which it has been largely free-riding and cherry-picking for advantage.

Obama and Xi Jinping’s pledge to build a “new model of cooperation” among major powers, was in effect, an answer—yes—to both questions, though an aspirational one. But the yawning gap between the perceptions and policies of both nations toward defining issues—cybersecurity, their respective roles and policies in East Asia, global trade and currencies—suggests that transcending current frictions is far easier said than done.

New Relationship?

At the summit, Xi stated bluntly that “China and the United States must find a new path, one that is different from the inevitable confrontation and conflict between the major countries of the past.” This reiterates a major Chinese theme: During his visit to Washington in February 2012, Xi Jinping called for “a new type of relationship between major countries in the 21st century.”

This idea has become a preoccupation of the Chinese policy wonks, morphing into its own acronym: New Type of Great Power Relationship (NTGPR) and has captured the imagination of the Chinese political elite, who are endeavoring to define it as a guiding concept for U.S.-Chinese relations—if not for the entire international system. Amid a relationship mired as much in mutual distrust as it is in mutual interdependence, to borrow from Gertrude Stein, “is there a there there?” Or is NTGPR a chimera, Chinese rhetoric aimed at persuading the world of its benign intentions?

The good news is that implicit in this idea is recognition that the current uncertain relationship, teetering between cooperation and strategic competition, is not sustainable: it will be pulled toward one predominant path or the other. To date, however, NTGPR is at best, a vague notion and at worst, a self-serving slogan. Sifting through the public comments of senior Chinese officials and analysts, NTGPR appears a successor to the previous motto of Chinese beneficence, “peaceful rise.” Whatever else it may be, the basic idea here is that rising powers do not necessarily have to come into conflict with established powers. Clearly, China does not want to be viewed as a contemporary version of Germany, 1914.

Most renditions by Chinese officials and state-sponsored intellectuals of NTGPR place the burden on the United States: stop selling arms to Taiwan, stop entertaining the Dalai Lama, and end the “pivot” to Asia and we will have a new type of relationship. Searching through Chinese commentaries, other than a bemoaning of the lack of “strategic trust” and vague references to global cooperation and “win-win” approaches, it is difficult to discern how exactly China would have to change its behavior to create a NTGPR.

In fact, regardless of what the future holds for the structure and substance of the relationship, U.S.-Chinese relations are already very different than any paradigm of great-power relations in recent memory. Since the Nixon opening more than four decades ago, eight presidents of both parties have pursued a remarkably consistent course: facilitating China’s entry into the global system, cooperating where possible and managing differences.

Unique Relationship

As it evolved after China launched its economic reforms and with the end of the Cold War, the U.S.-Chinese relationship became more unique. When in history has the leading power been a debtor financed by a rising power, with military planners in both capitals all the while drawing up military contingencies? It is difficult to find a parallel situation where two major powers from very different cultures and political systems were woven into the same economic system, yet were strategic competitors. Even as China whines about a U.S. “containment” strategy, it has benefited more from the current global economic and political system than any other country. With the U.S. security role underpinning stability in East Asia, China’s economy grew from some $202 billion in 1980 to roughly $7 trillion by 2012, as it assimilated into global institutions from the WTO to the IAEA.

And if nothing else, the 1914 analogies are lacking for one very large reason: nuclear weapons. For all the bluster on both sides, talk of conflict seems to overlook the stakes. There is a reason that for sixty years we didn’t fire a BB gun at the Soviet Union, but instead engaged in stealth competition and proxy wars: the threat of mutual annihilation.