With China’s leadership in transition and incoming Secretary of State John Kerry heading a new foreign policy team in the second Obama administration, leaders in both countries must face a “frightening array of domestic and foreign policy problems” in managing their vital relationship, longtime senior U.S. diplomat J. Stapleton Roy said in a Feb. 13 address at the East-West Center in Hawaii.
“No task is going to be more important than trying to arrest the current drift in U.S.-China relations toward strategic rivalry,” he said. “If leaders in both countries fail to deal with this issue, there is a strong possibility that tensions will rise and undermine the benign climate that has been so important in producing the Asian economic miracle – and to a significant degree, political miracle – over the past 30 years.”
Roy, who served as U.S. ambassador to China from 1991 to 1995, said the two nations are “locked in the traditional problem of an established power facing a rising power, and we know from historical precedent that competitive factors that emerge in such situations often result in bloody wars.” The good news, he said, is that “leaders in both countries are aware of the historical precedents and are determined to not let history repeat itself.”
While top leaders on both sides have recognized the need to work together toward a stable balance between cooperation and competition, Roy said, neither country has been able to implement this, and “it remains to be seen if it is even possible to establish this new type of relationship.”
Roy said opinion polls over the last couple of years have shown a dramatic increase in the percentage of Chinese citizens and officials who view relations with the U.S. as characterized by hostility rather than cooperation. During the same period, he said, U.S. polls indicate that “we don’t think of China in same way.”
“This is something we need to be concerned about,” he said, “because the tensions and passions on the other side are stronger than they are on our side, and this requires careful management.”
While incoming Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqian have already declared their interest in implementing further market reforms and reining in pervasive corruption, Roy said, “the Communist Party may lack the legitimacy and will to force through the far-reaching reforms that are needed against the influence of special interests, especially large state-owned businesses. One can reasonably doubt if a party corrupted by wealth at the highest level can carry out the kind of fundamental systemic reforms that are necessary.”
In addition, he said, China’s new leaders will be faced with a litany of internal difficulties that “illustrate why it would still be foolish to postulate that the 21st century will belong to China.” These include what even outgoing premier Wen Jiabao has characterized as an “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable” economy, Roy said, along with a rapidly aging population, slowing economic growth, and what is known as the “middle income trap,” when a rising economy loses the competitive advantage of low-cost labor as it climbs the income scale.
“Wages in China have been rising rapidly, especially for skilled labor,” Roy said. “So they have to substitute something else, such as innovation or efficiency.” Historically, he said, “over 100 countries have reached the middle income trap, and 86 percent failed to get out of it. They grow, then reach a certain level and stall out. China has to find way to avoid this, and that’s a big challenge.”
Another huge issue, Roy said, is that “rising nationalism is pushing China toward a more assertive international style and enmeshing it in difficulties with a lot of its neighbors. This has the potential to undermine the benign international environment that has underpinned the dramatic accomplishments China has made.”
China’s more assertive recent behavior is “both typical and predictable for a rising power,” he said. “But China is finding that when it expresses this nationalism through more assertive behavior, its neighbors all show solidarity with the U.S., which is not what China is trying to accomplish. And this is causing resentment in China, because they find that they can’t use their growing power effectively as a result of the negative consequences.”
This could actually prove to be a positive phenomenon for the U.S., he said, “because if we’re skillful enough to understand this dynamic, we are in a position to constrain China when it’s behaving irresponsibly and cooperate with it when it behaves responsibly.”
“China is not the Soviet Union,” he said. “China’s rise has benefitted all of the countries around it, and as a result they don’t want a containment policy; they want responsible behavior by China so they can expand economic and trade relations, which already dwarf their relations with other countries. But when China behaves badly, then they want the United States to be present because they can’t deal with China on their own. It’s a dynamic that skillful diplomacy should be able to take advantage from.”
With China now “locked in a web of disputes” with its neighbors over small but potentially resource-rich islands in the region, Roy said, “the United States finds itself in the awkward situation of trying to reassure our allies at the same time we try to restrain their behavior, because we don’t want tiny little islands in the western Pacific to end up bringing us into a great-power confrontation with China.”
The threat of such hostility is real, he said, and “these disputes are having direct impact on U.S.-China relations – but it’s an asymmetrical impact, because Americans basically don’t care about these islands. But in China it is an issue of great nationalist importance, as it is for Japan, the Philippines and other claimants.”
Such issues, he said, illustrate the complexity of trying to manage this vitally important relationship: “A stronger China will undoubtedly see itself as again becoming a central regional player, but the United States intends to remain actively engaged in East Asia, where we have formal alliances and strategic ties throughout the region.”
The question for leaders of both countries, Roy said, is whether they can find a solution to this conundrum. As of now, he said, “there is a disconnect between the high-level desire on both sides not to have our relationship drift toward rivalry and confrontation, and the way we’re actually behaving, which is driving us in that direction.”
Open military conflict is unlikely and preventable, he said, but just the threat of it could cause a costly “military capabilities competition” for decades to come, at a time when the U.S. is already facing budget cuts.
“Chinese and U.S. declared strategic goals and their actions are not yet in conformity with each other,” Roy said. “In my mind, this is the central strategic challenge in the U.S.-China relationship, and if we don’t address it forthrightly, it will be more difficult to manage in the future.”