Wednesday May 27, 2020


October 16, 2015

An analysis of interesting news stories from the past week:

The Impasse of US-China Relations

David Lai discusses the lack of progress made during Xi’s recent visit to the US, and uses international relations theory of power transition as a mechanism for interpreting the US-China shifting power dynamic. Lai defines power transition theory as “a struggle between big nations within the international system”, arguing that a nation gaining power and exerting influence poses a challenge to the existing international order as defined by the current hegemon. He also points out that power transition creates conditions for war, and wonders whether China and the US will be able to avoid it.

In order to assuage American fears of a US-China war, the PRC put forward the “Peaceful Rise” theory in the early 2000s, stating that China would not seek global hegemony or attempt to challenge the US, but would instead continue to develop peacefully. When President Xi met with President Obama at the Sunnylands retreat in California in 2013, he clearly defined three main components of the Peaceful Rise theory as it relates to the Sino-US relationship: “1) no confrontation, 2) mutual respect of core interests, and 3) win-win cooperation.”

Lai explains that the US is not totally on board with Xi’s proposal, mostly because the US cannot agree to respect some of China’s core interests, such as China’s perceived “territorial integrity” in disputed regions such as the South China Sea, or China’s policy of one-party Communist rule. Lai rather astutely recognizes the cultural difference that may be at the heart of this confusion in the bilateral dialogue; while China engages in figurative speech, the US prefers to tackle specific policy issues head on. He concludes that the impasse will continue as long as the two nations continue to talk past each other.

Lai relies heavily on international relations theory to deconstruct the points of contention in the Sino-US relationship. The PRC, however, argues that power transition is exclusively a Western experience, and put forward the “Peaceful Rise” theory as an alternative. Indeed, history shows that China was interacting with other states long before international relations even emerged as an academic discipline. Ultimately, the Peaceful Rise theory, however noble its cause may be, is vague and obscure. The PRC would do well to discuss specific items openly with the US rather than speak in generalizations. Likewise, the US should re-examine China’s development and accept that power transition theory is only one of many mechanisms for understanding the Sino-US relationship and that war with China is not inevitable.

President Xi’s Upcoming Trip to the UK

Next week, President Xi Jinping will make his first official state visit to the UK. Prime Minister David Cameron and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi have referred to this new period of UK-China cooperation as a “golden age”. Zhi Shiqin and Lai Suetyi argue that the two most important aspects of the bilateral relationship between the UK and China are economic and political.

These authors point out that Cameron’s government has become increasingly pragmatic in its approach to China in recent years. For example, the UK joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank despite the lack of US participation. Furthermore, the UK and China have become increasingly interdependent from and economic standpoint: “In terms of economic interdependence, the UK is China’s second largest trade partner in the EU (after Germany), while China is the UK’s second largest non-EU trade partner. The UK also is the most popular destination for Chinese foreign direct investment in the EU, and it is China’s second largest source of investment in the EU.” Politically, Xi’s visit to London will highlight the UK’s special status within Europe as a leader with a global role. Furthermore, Queen Elizabeth’s role as host to Xi, who will stay at Buckingham palace, emphasizes the UK’s desire to build a more cooperative and constructive relationship with China.

Clearly, the UK sees the economic and strategic benefits of a closer bilateral relationship with China, and is anxious to promote the “golden age” of Sino-UK friendship. This stands in sharp contrast to American attitudes toward China; the US views China as a competitor, not a partner. The UK-China relationship has the potential to be very constructive as both countries have a lot to gain from closer cooperation. Hopefully, this kind of bilateral relationship can serve as an example of how the US could work more effectively with China. That being said, the UK should not abandon or compromise its principals concerning human rights values and environmental standards in the interests of working with China. Perhaps the UK can leverage its role in the AIIB strategically to promote those values.

How Domestic Reform in the US Could Strengthen the Sino-US Relationship

Matthew Margulies argues that the US should pursue domestic reforms in order to ensure that it can out compete China, rather than engage in direct retaliation to the PRC’s actions. He discusses various fields in which the US could use this strategy to great effect, namely intellectual property, military, and human rights. The US could further its own interests and force China to “play by the rules” by investing in education across all income levels, strategically analyzing and cutting back on unnecessary military spending, and enhancing American soft power by creating access to affordable healthcare and de-militarizing US police forces. By working to achieve these three domestic reforms, Margulies argues, the US would not only surpass China, but would also strengthen itself.

Regardless of the US’ relationship with China, all three of these domestic reforms are useful and necessary for the future of the US. Although Margulies positions his suggestions for reform as an effective method of competing with China, if the US were to follow this advice and spend its resources investing in domestic problems and less time reacting to the PRC’s assertiveness in the Asia Pacific, Sino-US relations would improve. It is interesting to see the argument for domestic reform framed as an effective method for competing against a perceived foreign “enemy”, because ultimately Margulies still relies on anti-China sentiment to make his case. Perhaps he could have explained how these measures could not only ensure that the US remains competitive against China, but also ensure a more peaceful and collaborative Sino-US relationship.

Chinese Views on America

This opinion piece by Murong Xuecun is an interesting insight into Chinese perceptions of America. It starts off by recounting a documentary that depicted Chinese citizen’s reactions to the events of 9/11, four years ago on the tenth anniversary of the event. Shockingly, some Chinese expressed approval of the attacks, arguing that America is “a bully and a hegemon.” However, later in the film one of those same people expressed a desire to go live in America and even admitted that he would not return to China if he did not have to. Murong explains that these kinds of mixed feelings are not uncommon among Chinese people’s perceptions of America; many of them are fearful of American imperialism and see the US as an enemy, but also admire the quality of life that many Americans enjoy in the US.

He cites a survey from Pew Research Center that found that only 44 percent of Chinese have a favorable view of America, the 33rd out of 40 countries surveyed. He attributes this low approval rating primarily to effective anti-American propaganda in the PRC, and argues that the Chinese government has both painted the US as China’s enemy, and censored the media to such an extent that it is difficult to get an accurate picture of life outside of China. On the other hand, he insists that because the internet remains accessible despite censorship, many Chinese netizens are exposed to American media, entertainment, and news. Because of this, many Chinese also admire American values. Of course, it is not shocking to learn that people from other countries have mixed views on America; but Murong points out that what is most interesting in China’s case is that a single individual might harbor these conflicting perspectives simultaneously, and that many of the Chinese who do hold contrasting views are members of the elite or even government officials. Ultimately, Murong seems hopeful and argues that the path to a better China-US relationship lies with the Chinese people, who have access to information that informs a more objective view of both China and the US.

It would have been interesting for Murong to include Americans perspectives on China in his article, especially as the run-up to the 2016 presidential election had indulged in the narrative of China as an enemy to the US. Unfortunately, many Americans holding conflicting or even negative views on China.

For more information on these topics, please see the following sources:

The Diplomat on the Impasse of US-China Relations

The Diplomat on President Xi’s Upcoming Trip to the UK

The Diplomat How Domestic Reform in the US Could Strengthen the Sino-US Relationship

The New York Times on Chinese Views on America

Compiled and written by Rachel Peniston