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China and the US – Struggling with new realities
February 8, 2013, 5:10 pm

To steer the “shared boat” in the uncharted water of the future world is not easy. Sino-US relations have been undergoing profound transformation and will certainly navigate a rough sea ahead. The need of the hour is for a strong and clear message to be sent out to the new leadership in Washington and Beijing.

Today, it is in no way far-fetched to assume that the fate of the world hinges upon China and US collaborating on a wide range of critical global issues like climate change, food and water shortages, and resource scarcities. Both the US and China are expected to broaden their strategic aperture and seriously address long-term global trends challenges and potentially consequential uncertainties.

The most important bilateral relationship in the world is defined by a complex mix of cooperation and competition, and would remain so for the decade to come. For there is now an undeniable interdependence in Sino-US ties.

If one were to believe widespread international media reports on ties, cooperation is on the wane and competition on the rise. Indeed during the Presidential election of 2012, there was a spate of mindless, unhinged “China-bashing” by both contenders, compelling an acrid and suspicious atmosphere.

China and the United States are each other’s second-largest trade partner, with bilateral trade approaching $500 billion. If China-US trade is to grow further, threats of terming China a “currency-manipulator” needs to stop.

Preventing the restrained competition from sliding down into a dangerous strategic rivalry entails transformation of strategic mindsets of both sides. It is worth noting that the nature of national security is fashioned on these core ideas —power, leadership, and far-sightedness.

These have undergone profound changes, resulting from the ever-increasing interconnectedness of the global system today. This defines the debates and choices of a nation’s grand strategy in the 21st century – the fact that we do not live in a fragmented world anymore.

The diffusion of power

It is vital that Chinese and US policy makers and national security experts adopt an “out of the box” approach.

The most important characteristic is the diffusion of power, which not only leads to the rise of emerging key state players, but also makes the empowerment of individual and related non-state actors possible. This diffusion of power, together with the increasing interdependence among nations and the complex web of national security threats, suggests that there will not be any hegemonic power in future.

"Both sides should not view the other as the greatest national security threat". [Getty Images]

“Both sides should not view the other as the greatest national security threat”. [Getty Images]

This also implies the redefinition of the nature of power itself. Global power would shift to various networks and the country which can become the hub of networks and the convener of coalitions and skillful in forging the connectedness with relevant players would be the truly “powerful one”.

So, the only grand strategy of foreign policy ought to be milieu-oriented rather than position-oriented. It is unwise and costly, even self-defeating if one country singles out another county as its overarching national security threat and concentrate its power recourses for halting growth in another. We have seen the US doing it using Congressional panels and lawmakers.

What is striking for both China and the US is not the preeminence of one threat or the threat from any specific nation; rather, it is the scope and variety of emerging threats in this increasingly uncertain and varied, vulnerable world.

Both sides should not view the other as the greatest national security threat since they face common global challenges which would be more sweeping and daunting in the future. Xi Jinping, China’s Communist Party chief  told former US president Jimmy Carter last month that both countries should build a partnership based on respect.

Some striking trends which form the “global operating environment” could help formulate future policy. At the foremost, the world population will rise from 7.1 billion to about 8.3 billion by 2030. The aging of population would accelerate in most advanced countries and several developing ones including China. The economic growth would decline while the costs for social welfare soar in aging countries.

Meanwhile, the per cent of the world’s population in the middle class will expand from the current 1 billion to over 2 billion and urbanisation will grow from 50 per cent of the world’s population to about 60 per cent. The tensions and conflicts between the middle classes from different countries and between the high-status and low-status middle classes within one country may heighten.

The convergence of concerns and increased vocalisation of demands by the empowered middle class will contrast sharply with government’s capacity to deliver public goods and services, particularly those relating to improving quality of life.

Global governance needed 

More important, the demand for natural resources will increase owing to growing middle-class consumption, for instance, nearly half of the world’s population will live in water-stressed areas. Resource scarcities are likely to be more serious and the struggles for land, energy, food, water, and minerals truly intensify a nexus of challenges for the globe.

However, it also brings about opportunities for the US and China to play joint leadership, from improving resource efficiency and promoting greener growth, to staving off potentially disastrous conflicts.

As the biggest emitters, China and the US must lead in tackling the disastrous effects of climate change. The extreme weather events like the “superstorm” Sandy and new scientific studies warn that the worst-case scenarios for climate change impacts are the most likely outcomes.

[Getty Images]

China and the US must work together to tackle climate change. [Getty Images]

The key solution to these global challenges is to reform and strengthen global governance. It is a pressing task for Washington and Beijing to explore how global governance can achieve “transformation in stability” and become more inclusive, legitimate, adaptive, and functional.

Indeed, both China and the US are encountering daunting domestic challenges on revitalising and sustaining their economic health, addressing the increasing social disparity, strengthening the social safety net, adjusting the structure of energy consumption, and boosting employment.

Of course, the US and China have different interests, objectives, and perspectives on many matters. But this cannot be made a prerequisite for cooperation, nor should it stand in the way of ties between the two cultures and the two people.

A broad consensus driving the development of China-US relations in the last four decades is partly fraying, and a new consensus that reflects the reality that China is an increasingly established power is not yet in place. Cooperation on shared global challenges may build trust and make it easier to resolve nettlesome bilateral issues.

The co-evolution and convergence of strategic visions of Beijing and Washington will help put them on the right map. For their sake and the sake of the world, the two must learn to co-exist and let-live.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.