U.S., China Drift Toward Zero Sum

U.S., China Drift Toward Zero Sum

Diplomacy has become an empty ritual that will not address the building tensions in the relationship.


For all the soaring rhetoric of the Obama-Xi Summit about the US and China committing to forge a bold, new partnership and avoiding a 1914-like stumbling into conflict, one could be forgiven for thinking the bilateral relationship is lapsing into a “same old, same old” ritualistic diplomacy.

The modest headlines generated at this month’s so-called Strategic and Economic Dialogue (SED)—that the United States and China agreed to launch talks on a Bilateral Investment Treaty and some new cooperation on climate change—were small steps in the right direction. But they hardly rise to the level of tipping the part cooperative, part competitive relationship toward a more mutually beneficial partnership between the world’s two largest economies.


The imperative to move beyond what some have dubbed a “sweet and sour” bilateral relationship was underscored by a Pew Global Survey released on July 17. The poll confirmed that mutual distrust is growing: China’s approval rating in the United States dropped by 14 percent to 37 percent; negative views of the United States in China rose by 9 percent to 53 percent since a similar 2011 poll.

In fact, administration officials privately confirm news reports that they were disappointed and a bit frustrated at the outcomes. I suspect the Chinese were also not pleased either as their U.S. counterparts ran down the laundry list of complaints—from cyber and trade to maritime behavior and proliferation.

On the hot button issue of cybersecurity, for example, with an apparent lack of urgency, they held the first meeting of the Cyber Working Group, and agreed only to enhance dialogue. As a report in the New York Times observed, “It was a measure of how little was agreed upon that at a dinner on Thursday night, at the end of the meetings, the Chinese and Americans spent much of their time praising their cooperation on a single project: Building a Chinese garden at the national arboretum.”

This stands in stark contrast to the ongoing Chinese charm offensive trumpeting their desire for “a new type of great power relationship,” heralded as a cooperative “win-win” approach. Of course, China’s campaign, a successor its “peaceful rise” propaganda is filled with things the United States should stop doing (e.g. selling arms to Taiwan, reverse “the pivot,” ignore the Dalai Lama, etc.). But a careful search of Chinese writings is devoid of answers to the question of what China would do differently in this wondrous new relationship. So, no surprise it was precisely on key irritants and sources of “strategic distrust” in the relationship—Chinese cybertheft, exchange rates, WTO compliance and geopolitical tensions in East Asia over disputed East and South China Sea territories—that little progress occurred.

Some Points of Light

On the plus side of the strategic checklist, China appears to be moving closer to the U.S. position on North Korea, distancing itself from its wayward ally (as was also evidenced at the Obama-Xi Summit). Beijing, a U.S. official remarked to me, “is talking to us about North Korea in ways it never would before.” Whether this is a tactical shift or a strategic move remains to be seen, but Beijing is keeping more distance from and squeezing Pyongyang more than it has in the past. In addition, while separate from the SED, I am reliably told that more productive military-to-military talks are moving forward after a long period that greatly frustrated many at DOD and the Pacific Command.

There was modest positive movement on some economic issues. If the United States and China can negotiate a strong investment treaty, it would open access to a range of Chinese markets for U.S. investment. Whether vague statements to pursue cooperation in areas such as climate change, nuclear security and counterterrorism will result in more than exchanges of scripted talking points remains to be seen. But some of the actions at the state and local levels such as “eco-partnerships” and “eco-cities” may be more interesting, perhaps developing deeper sinews of the relationship between cities, states and civil society than at the national state-to-state level.

Curiously, one development with the potential to become a very important economic and environmental aspect of the relationship went all but unnoticed. China, which has larger recoverable shale gas reserves than the United States (but has yet to develop them) announced a move to accelerate developing a legal and regulatory framework for Unconventional Oil and Gas (shale and tight oil). The complex geology of China’s shale, water shortages and a technology deficit are impediments to the realization of its shale gas prospects.

U.S. firms have technology that could more quickly develop China’s shale gas, but are fearful of the predatory practices of Chinese state oil companies. This may be an area where public-private partnerships and agile energy diplomacy could make a difference. Apart from the economic benefits, China is still nearly 70 percent dependent on coal, and developing shale gas could allow them to convert electric power plants from coal to gas. Given that China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse-gas emissions, that could be a major move to combat climate change.

Lessons Learned

Whether U.S.-Chinese bilateral ties can tip the balance toward a more cooperative and less strategically competitive relationship clearly remains an open question. If diplomatic creatures like the SED are the main tools to manage the relationship, one must be skeptical that layers of mutual distrust will be sufficiently dissipated, and new habits of cooperation (or at least compatibility) be fostered.

Instead, the whole SED experience seems to reaffirm the importance of setting and maintaining priorities. A new chapter in U.S.-Chinese relations also requires sustained high-level focus: who is the point person in the U.S. government and who is their Chinese counterpart?

Cybersecurity is too critical an issue to languish in an SED Working Group. If we are serious, why not have the U.S. cyber chief meet with their Chinese counterpart? Similarly, on the respective U.S. and Chinese postures in East Asia, new understandings need to be reached as to what each side can live with. And it would be helpful—if only to counter Chinese paranoia and conspiracy theories—if the administration would clearly articulate that China would be welcome to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). A major regional trade accord without the world’s largest trading power would be of dubious virtue. As China institutes its next wave of economic reforms, meeting TPP’s high standards will be in its own interest to be competitive.

There is a compelling, rational case for Washington and Beijing to move toward a more cooperative relationship for mutual benefit. It is difficult to see global prosperity and a stable international system endure—let alone address global problems like climate change—with the United States and China drifting toward zero-sum competition.

But history is littered with conflicts sparked by irrational actors. It will require leadership and vision from both sides to get past the current “security dilemma” behavior and worst-case fears. But absent that, muddle-through management of the relationship may run out of fingers to put in the dikes over time.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council. He served as a senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004 and a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008.

Image: Flickr/futureatlas.com. CC BY 2.0.