Why a U.S.-China "G-2" Won't Work

A failed idea is making a comeback.

Back in 2009, it seemed that all the White House had to do to demonstrate wisdom was to declare that the solution—whatever the problem—was "Anything But Bush" (ABB). Those were heady days for the Obama administration.

How to deal with China? The ABB solution was the G-2, or Group of Two. It was quite the hot idea—before it flamed out.

The logic behind the G-2 was pretty simple. The U.S. and China, as two great powers, should sit down and settle the world's problems between them.

The idea had some high-powered fans. Zbigniew Brzezinski loved it. In January 2009, marking the 30th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Washington and Beijing, he called pursuit of the G-2, "a mission worthy of the two countries with the most extraordinary potential for shaping our collective future." Newly-minted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got caught up in the "happy" fever, declaring, "The opportunities for us [the U.S. and China] to work together are unmatched anywhere in the world."

Soon, the G-2 was being promoted as the "easy button" for handling almost every intractable challenge, from climate change to the global financial crisis to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The idea quickly died a natural death. And no wonder: there was a huge divide between the notion that the U.S. and China could agree on how to solve the world's problems (and the related idea that they could then convince the rest of the world to go along) and reality. And reality wouldn't budge.

In an article for Foreign Affairs, Elizabeth Economy and Adam Segal warned that the G-2 was an idea whose time had not come. "It will raise expectations for a level of partnership that cannot be met," they wrote, "and exacerbate the very real differences that still exist between Washington and Beijing." Their article went on provide a long list of reasons for why the idea was impractical. They were right. Nobody in Washington talks seriously about the idea anymore.

Yet the ghost of the G-2 still wanders around Asia-focused think tanks and academic fora, as well as Asian foreign ministries—and it’s no "friendly" ghost. The new iteration of the G-2 is not only more simplistic than the one embraced by Brezinski and Clinton; it’s malevolent as well. The new G-2 holds that the U.S. and China can solve the world's problems simply by divvying up the world—with China getting Asia.

From Delhi to Canberra to Seoul, that’s a scary notion that spooks a lot of people. The nightmare is fueled by popular writings like those of Hugh White. An Australian professor of strategic studies, White argues that China is rising and the U.S. isn't; so everybody should just get used to Beijing having more influence in Asia.

But China getting its own piece of the rock isn’t likely to happen.

China is a mercantilist power in a globalized world. That inconsistency creates friction that can’t be greased over—not even if White is right and Beijing increases its power dramatically in its half of the world.

That also means the G-2 remains a non-starter for the U.S. Carving up the planet today as the Soviets and the West split the spoils of World War II is inconceivable. Back in the day, Washington didn't much care that Moscow walled itself off from the West. The Western world didn't do much business with the Russians. All the productive economies emerged on our side of the Iron Curtain.

But, that was then. Today, Asia is peopled with growing economies and vibrant democracies. America isn't going anywhere—least of all back to the other side of the Hawaiian Islands.

So if the idea of G-2 makes no sense even on the surface, why do people in Asia still fret about it, even after Obama promised to "pivot" to Asia?

Partially, it’s because—from the East China Sea to the Indian Ocean—many people still have trouble making sense of what the administration means by “rebalancing.” Indeed, now that the Oval Office is a few years into its rebalancing project, folks in Asia are starting to wonder if there is much there there.