Is It Time to Meet China Halfway?

May 12, 2015 Topic: China Region: Asia Tags: ChinaAsiaMeeting China Halfway

Is It Time to Meet China Halfway?

Book Excerpt: An important new work offers important ideas on how to defuse the emerging U.S.-China rivalry. 

Cooperation Spirals


In addition to the commonsense methodological approach of surveying a wide body of Chinese-language writings, this book also presents the conceptual innovation of “cooperation spirals,” in order to provide bilateral policy “moves” for achieving substantive progress in US-China relations across a range of difficult issues. A cooperation spiral may be considered the precise opposite of an escalation spiral—which is frequently interpreted as the result of fear and misperception when leaders confront security dilemmas.41 In a cooperation spiral, trust and confidence are built over time through incremental and reciprocal steps that gradually lead to larger and more significant compromises. To be sure, these proposed steps will be difficult—and thus their related challenges are fully analyzed in the chapters that follow—but their gradual, evolutionary, and reciprocal nature make them a feasible guide for practitioners.

Unfortunately, the leading journals in East Asian international relations, such as Asian Survey and International Security, appear to neglect the issue of how to foster US-China cooperation.42  Alternatively, academic journals that do take international cooperation as their focus, such as Conflict Management and Peace Science, have tended to disregard the issue of China, and US-China relations in particular. A veritable intellectual chasm has therefore seemed to open up with respect to fresh scholarship on how Beijing and Washington might cooperate in the twenty-first century.

Nevertheless, a number of relevant insights from the quite extensive theoretical debate—which generally pits “neoliberals” against “neorealists”— regarding the nature of cooperation in world politics are summarized here. Two pioneers in the study of international cooperation, Robert Axelrod and Robert Keohane, warn at the outset that “achieving cooperation is difficult in world politics, . . . [where] cheating and deception are endemic.” They highlight the importance of the “mutuality of interests,” as expressed in “payoff structures,” the “shadow of the future,” and the number of actors involved. Each of these issues is pertinent to the prospects for US-China cooperation, given that one may evaluate whether Beijing and Washington indeed prefer “mutual cooperation” to “mutual defection,” because that cannot be assumed. They emphasize, moreover, that the “mutuality of interests is not based simply on objective factors, but is grounded upon the actors’ perception of their own interests. Perceptions define interests.” These scholars evaluate both the possibilities and risks of “issue linkage” in facilitating cooperation, and also the likely constraints posed by domestic politics. They appear to offer strong support for the proposed cooperation spiral model, when they assert that “a strategy based on reciprocity—such as tit for tat—can be remarkably effective in promoting cooperation, . . . even among pure egoists.” Still, even these foremost advocates of cooperation are quite cognizant that attempts at reciprocity can devolve into “acrimonious and frustrating patterns of bargaining,” but also that the most effective motive for cooperation between rivals in world politics has generally been the “activities of a third power.”43 Cheating and the problem of relative gains also pose significant challenges for policymakers that seek mutual accommodation by employing cooperation spirals. Nevertheless, Asia specialists are still very much intrigued by the possibilities for reinvigorated engagement, as one scholar explained in the summer of 2013 in the leader article of Global Asia: “Engagement invites reciprocity, thus setting in motion a succession of positive changes in policy and outlook quite opposite from the ladder of escalation that characterizes all too many international conflicts.”44

Skeptics are likely to counter that the “cooperation spirals” confer a distasteful moral equivalence to the developing rivalry between the United States and China. From that perspective, the nature of the conflict between these two powers over the Asia-Pacific region is not so much the inevitable structural result of an increasingly bipolar system, but rather is determined by the alleged nationalism and “inherent aggressiveness” of the contemporary Chinese regime. Many in the West, as Friedberg contends, consider the Chinese regime to be “evil,” and thus inherently untrustworthy. Numerous Western analysts have pointed to “Chinese nationalism” as a major driver of future conflict, whether in the South China Sea or elsewhere.45 Undoubtedly, the contemporary Chinese regime leans on Chinese nationalism to retain its governing legitimacy. Likewise, the state-controlled media is able to stifle dissenting opinions, including voices promoting compromises.46  Nevertheless, this book does not take up this major theme of the connection between China’s form of polity and its predisposition (or not) toward armed conflict, chiefly for two reasons. First, books that closely examine the internal workings of the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party are quite common in the West.47 Second, my view is that this book can have more of an impact on the “rivalry dynamics” aspect of US-China relations, rather than seeking more ambitiously to bring about fundamental change in Beijing. In my estimate, the reform of China’s governing apparatus is a job best left to the Chinese people.

The cooperation spiral model, as applied in this book across a wide variety of difficult policy dilemmas in US-China relations, draws on all major traditions in international relations theory. From the constructivist tradition, the model relies on the conception that ideas and norms have force unto themselves, and therefore creative diplomacy and focused leadership can potentially break divisive deadlocks and prevent the tragedy of great power conflict. From the liberal tradition, the model adopts certain precepts related to processes, and specifically to those institutions that can guide expectations and behavior—thus building trust and enabling further cooperation. Finally, though in somewhat obvious contradiction to realist predictions of rivalry, the cooperation spiral also takes certain realist principles as essential, including the principles that cooperative measures must be consistent with state interests, must accord with tendencies in the balance of power, and must also be reciprocal in nature to the extent possible. Therefore, the proposed model also represents a realist form of cooperation. Stimulating a wider discussion of alternative steps within the proposed cooperation spirals would constitute, in itself, a major contribution to this field. After all, this author hardly purports to be Moses with a Hundred Commandments. The twin key points of this approach are that reciprocity is necessary and that practical first steps must be found. The endpoints only seem utopian in the absence of the accomplishments that result from climbing the earlier steps, and even if the endpoints remain out of reach, each step represents a significant advance. For instance, the European Union could not have emerged except at the end of a path of cooperation that began with small and tentative cooperative efforts that proved themselves intrinsically useful.48

Turning from the proposed model of the cooperation spiral to the logic of this book’s argument and the progression of its chapters, it is suggested at the outset that this book is built on the premise that history cannot be overlooked or papered over. Therefore, chapter 2 draws upon the findings of a number of cutting-edge historical treatments of East Asia—both Western and Chinese. The central issues of Taiwan and of economic relations are, respectively, the subjects of chapters 3 and 4. These chapters introduce the concept of the cooperation spiral—a pattern that continues throughout the rest of the book. Chapter 5 highlights the rather significant progress that has been achieved in the environmental domain, but it also puts a purposeful focus on the all-important issue of climate change. Chapter 6, on US-China interactions in the developing world, naturally follows the prior discussions regarding economic and environmental relationships. A turn toward geopolitics on the world stage is made in chapter 7, where the Middle East is discussed as a region beset by instability for which US-China strategic cooperation offers significant promise. From a wider discussion of the global possibilities for US-China cooperation, the book then turns to the key issues that have roiled the politics of East Asia in the last decade—threatening the region’s new prosperity, which has so dazzled and impressed the rest of the world in the current era. Thus, collaborative US-China cooperation cycles are promoted to cope with the ongoing crisis on the Korean Peninsula (chapter 8), the dangers of China/Japan enmity (chapter 9), and new tensions that have recently escalated in Southeast Asia (chapter 10). With a nod toward a future world where India’s role may come to approximate that of contemporary China, chapter 11 develops possibilities for an India-US-China triangular relationship that might promote stability and peace instead of the current course toward escalating great power rivalry.

Chapter 12, the conclusion, develops a number of key linkages among issue areas (e.g., Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula) and also presents the final cooperation spiral, which focuses on the key security dimension of the overall US-Chinese relationship. Crucially, the conclusion also discusses in some detail three major critiques that may undermine the promise of cooperation spirals for US-China cooperation. The first critique concerns China’s record on human rights. Should the United States seek active cooperation with a rising power that does not share its most cherished values? The second critique holds that a Group of Two (commonly referred to as the “G-2”) condominium in world decision making is inherently unfair and also likely premature in many respects. What will be the reaction of other major powers (e.g., Japan), not to mention those small states seemingly squeezed between the two whales? And finally, the third critique is the most iconic of all arguments made against enhanced US-China engagement: the charge of “appeasement.” If China’s security concerns are to be accommodated to a significant extent, as recommended in this book, will Beijing not 得寸进尺 (given an inch, take a yard) and demand ever more concessions? Full answers to these wholly reasonable critiques are given in the book’s conclusion, but here it is enough to assert that China’s human rights situation and the vital question of relations with “third parties” would both benefit substantially from the stabilizing impact of the development of a genuinely cooperative bilateral relationship between the two emergent superpowers. As for the charge of appeasement, this book is likely to incense nationalists in Beijing as much as or perhaps more than it will infuriate hawks in Washington, because it calls for mutual accommodation or concessions in equal measure from both sides—the only realistic way forward, because neither side can now hope to impose its will on the other.