18 February 2012, 11:00

US-China: a mix of cooperation and competition

US-China: a mix of cooperation and competition
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Interview with Robert Ross, Professor of Political Science at Boston College and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Vice-President Xi came to Washington in difficult time in US-China relations. The leaders – Vice-President Xi, Vice-President Biden and President Obama have gone to the Pentagon to meet with Defense Department officials including the Secretary of Defense. So, in this respect there is the media element to this and public diplomacy is going rather smoothly. My think however is of the same opinion that there has been the frank discussion between the two leaders on issues of East Asian security, the American role in advancing American military posture in East Asia and on our part complaints about China’s economic policies that we believe created unfair playing field for US export.

And I feel we’ll have a difficult agenda when he assumes the presidency of China in March of 2013. On the one hand many have witnessed what has been called a more sort of Chinese diplomacy in 2009 – 2010 which was of concern to many of Chinese neighbours and required the United States to reassure the region that the stronger, rising China was not going to challenge the regional order to spite the global economic recession.

The US response was to consolidate its relationships with its many allies in the region – this would be Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, Australia. But we also began to establish new relationships with countries in the Indo-China – that include Vietnam and Cambodia and this includes the strategic ties. We took the position in the territorial dispute in the South China Sea that seem to take sides with the smaller countries against China, so we began to reevaluate the US South Korean alliance by increasing our true presence in military activities in South Korea.

So, for the Chinese all of these things seem a more sort of United States soaring its authority on China’s mainland frontiers and increasing China’s threat perception and security concerns. For the first time in 30 years we are seeing the emergence of regional security trends in East Asia. That suggests the United States and China are going to have a more difficult relationship. Added to that of course is the US – China bilateral economic friction. The trade deficit is the constant concern of the United States and this is going to be a political issue that any President must deal with.

Now, on the Chinese side however, the Chinese economy is undergoing significant problems of high unemployment, high inflation and a concern for having to rebalance its economy and set it back on the course of the long term stable growth. So, its ability to make concessions on the trade deficit are severely constrained and this issue as well will make it difficult for the United States and China to deeply exercise the relationships and this is part of the US - China agenda now and this is Xi Jinping’s challenge for foreign policy when he assumes the presidency.

So, does that mean that those challenges that you have listed right now, do they really overshadow the opportunities?

Well, the United States of course has focused much of its diplomatic energy on China. China, as a rising power, attracts our attention more. The fact that the two most influential countries in the world today – the United States and China both have vital interests in the East Asia and East Asia is the most dynamic economic region in the world, so this makes the East Asian necessarily be focused on the great powers’ relations.

Now, in this context the United States has worked very hard for cooperation with China. But as China begins to develop its military and begins to press more on the status quo and as its domestic politics increasingly pressure to adopt a more contentious diplomacy, it will make it difficult for the two countries to maintain a cooperative relationship. So that increasingly we are going to see a greater mix of cooperation and competition. The challenge for both countries is to minimize the conflict over unnecessary issues, to minimize unnecessary conflict that may simply reflect domestic pressures. And to the extent we are successful in doing them, I believe there are many opportunities for that. It will make it easier to cooperate on common interests whether it’s piracy or the economic stability and so on and so forth.

Do I get you right that you still see opportunities for a constructive dialog between the two countries?

I think underneath this growing tension is nonetheless the relationship in which the Chinese for their part need a long term peaceful environment still to manage their many domestic, economic and political problems and still to alter the military. This is still a military that is considerably in fury with the United States.

So, however we may witness China pushing with the more severe diplomacy. Chinese leaders understand that a cooperative relations with the United States is as important as the stable East Asia for the United States because we should recognize that the Chinese military remains secondary to the United States military and the United States enjoys supremacy to outer Western Pacific and in South China Sea. We should be able to respond to Chinese ongoing rise and even it’s somewhat pleasure diplomacy with some degree of restraint because the real military challenge isn’t there, at least not yet. So, of course the US can step back and return to prior policies that continue to serve each country well. You have between you two to improve and extent cooperation there.

What does the US leadership expect of the new Chinese leader? And of course this is a question we discussed with Robert Ross – Professor of Political Science at Boston College.

If we compare two personalities Mr. Hu and Mr. Xi?

Hu Jintao is a much more coactive leader in public affairs. He kept his own council, he was not particularly dynamic, on the contrary someone calls him Chinese quiet leader. Whereas I think we expect from Xi Jinping to have a more dynamic role in Chinese politics and to make a greater effort to establish the Chinese Communist Party’s willingness to address the growing issues in local economy and the growing problems being faced by the Chinese people including inequality and unemployment.

The number one task for the leader of China in reality is not the United States but maintaining domestic stability and the authority of the Chinese Communist Party. And the Vice-President Xi, when he becomes the president his commitment to the Chinese Communist Party will be to maintain that stability. And I think increasingly his role will be not only in policy making but in trying to develop a role that reassures the people that the Chinese Communist Party is committed to improve the condition of the Chinese people.

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