Can U.S.-Chinese Relations Be Saved?

Empty bromides. Pretend progress. It is the failure that dare not speak its name.

There is something unsettling about high-level U.S.-Chinese summits. American participants must present an uneasy combination of faux bonhomie and furrowed-brow concern over the serious issues that divide Washington and Beijing. The Chinese usually look both confident and yet stiff, perhaps reflecting resentment at being browbeaten over the myriad shortcomings of their system while reminding their counterparts that their country has nonetheless had the greatest growth rates in the history of recorded economies.

In all, there is a sense that the relationship should be going better. That, after four decades of intense diplomacy and interaction, the two sides should have developed deeper trust and some type of true working relationship. That China, which has risen above its poverty and isolation to become the world’s second-largest economy and political heavyweight in less than a generation, should not only be more appreciative of the liberal international order that allowed its economic growth but should also be far more supportive of the norms that underlie the system. And that the United States should have decided by now how to reconcile the Janus-faced reality that China is both a business partner and a strategic competitor. Rather, Washington hides behind diplomatic niceties about deeper partnership while suffering from an emotional and conceptual ambiguity, which leads to being ridden by the tiger of international relations—instead of riding it.

To mix metaphors further, Sino-U.S. relations are a Potemkin village. Despite over ninety governmental mechanisms in the bilateral relationship, if one presses Asia experts on examples of real cooperation between the two nations—even to name one truly significant achievement in the U.S.-Chinese partnership—the result is a studied silence. It is the failure that dare not speak its name, an emerging case study in the triumph of realist notions of international politics and the shortcomings of “engagement.”

When the national-security adviser to the president of the United States has to say

[There is an] observation and the view by … some people in the United States and some people in China, that a rising power and an existing power are in some manner destined for conflict … We reject that, and the Chinese government rejects that. And the building out of the so-called … new model of relation between great powers is the effort to ensure that doesn't happen …

The fears are not being spun out of fevered imaginations, but sadly seem to conform to previous great-power competitions.

This past week was supposed to mark the beginning of a new era in U.S.-Chinese relations, according to the spinmeisters. Yet, after eight hours of private conversation between presidents Obama and Xi at the exclusive Sunnylands estate in California, the depressingly vague and long laundry list of promises for future collaboration sounded like an American State of the Union address: long on generalities, short on specifics. On all substantive matters, the two sides left the summit as far apart as when they arrived, just as has happened each time in the past. The Chinese continued to evade responsibility for persistent cyber attacks on American businesses and cyber theft of American military secrets. The usual bromides about pressuring North Korea were trotted out, with the obligatory Chinese endorsement of the abysmal Six-Party Talks. Good fellowship was on display, but nothing touched the core disputes between the capitals.

Given the sheer amount of time both sides have spent on high-level dialogues over the years, a reasonable conclusion is that relations are at best stagnant, at worst becoming more conflicting. Asian and Western analysts have talked themselves dry about codes of conduct, working groups, legal interpretations, forming a G-2 and the like. Yet there remains little agreement on North Korea, Iran and Syria; no movement on piracy of intellectual property; a chasm on cyber aggression; and hardened attitudes towards security issues such as maritime territorial disputes between China and its neighbors.

Based on last week’s summit, there is a deeper fear that we should acknowledge: the U.S.-Chinese relationship has already hit its high-water mark, rendering the prospect of meaningful future collaboration increasingly dim. It is easy for Americans to get nervous about challenges to our global position (call it Great-Power Shane Syndrome), but it is hard to see how Chinese interests are converging with those of America. Instead, the stronger China gets, the more it seems to both push back on U.S. and allied interests and to test the flexibility of international norms. Dozens of top-level meetings between our civilian and military leaders on both sides have done nothing to arrest this momentum.

Because of this lack of progress, prudence recommends at a minimum a cautious, if not defensive, attitude, toward China. Pretending to have a partnership and shared interests can only lead to growing frustration in the relationship. Moreover, acting as though progress in solving disputed issues is occurring, when in reality it is not, is likely to lead to miscommunication. It would be better to offer hard medicine early on, and make our expectations and goals clear. That approach will underscore for Beijing the consequences to its interests of a worsening of relations.

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