US-China Relationship Needs Common Purpose

US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping speak after an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting. November 12, 2014, Beijing, China. (U.S. Embassy The Hague/Flickr)

When China’s economic output eventually surpasses America’s some time in the next decade, it will be the first time since the reign of George III that the world’s largest economy belongs to a country that is not Western, not English-speaking and not a liberal democratic state. Yet, in the asymmetric world that is emerging, the US will remain the dominant military force. The fulcrums of economic and military power are separating. Can these changes in the distribution of power occur peacefully?

It will be difficult. In Beijing’s eyes, the US is deeply opposed to China’s rise. A document circulated among the Communist party leadership last year summed up the consensus view. American strategy towards China, it said, had five objectives: to isolate the country, contain it, diminish it, divide it, and sabotage its political leadership.

These conclusions sound strange to a Western audience. They reflect the conviction of Communist party leaders that the US has not, and never will, accept the political legitimacy of the administration in Beijing because it is not a liberal democracy. They also reflect the Chinese view that the US will never willingly cede its status as the preeminent power in Asia and the world.

For America, a rising China is no longer business as usual. Instead, the US sees a rival that is growing in strength and competing for political, diplomatic, and security policy space in Asia. On this view, Beijing’s long-term policy is aimed at pushing the US out of Asia altogether and establishing a Chinese sphere of influence spanning the region.

Both China and the US have strategic narratives about each other. What they lack is a shared view of how the two powers should coexist. They need one to prevent the relationship deteriorating into a long and mutually costly period of rancor, crisis, or even conflict.

As I explain in a paper for Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, such a common framework should have three elements. First, be realistic about the areas of the relationship which cannot be resolved within the foreseeable future, while managing them within a protocol which does not allow the entire relationship to be derailed or destroyed.

These points of contention include territorial matters such as the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and the status of Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing claims as an inalienable part of the People’s Republic. They also include human rights, which Beijing sees as a purely internal affair but Westerners see as a core element of the international normative order.

Second, be constructive about those difficult areas that could be resolved with high-level political effort. Bilaterally, this could take the form of an investment treaty between China and the US. Regionally, this could include the US and China working together to develop institutions such as the existing East Asia Summit into a more expansive Asia-Pacific Community. Globally, expand existing cooperation on climate change, possibly including India.

Third, an agreed “common purpose” to build trust, step by step, over time. Declaratory statements are no substitute for practical action in resolving shared problems.

The future of the US-China relationship is not predetermined. It is for the two countries’ leaders to shape. They have more common interests than may meet the eye. The world faces a growing list of challenges that are too big for even the strongest countries to solve alone. International institutions are often not up to the task, either. This is an opportunity to make common cause.

A common strategic framework is not the same as an agreement on matters of substance. It will not itself be enough to resolve all tensions in the US-China relationship. What it offers is the prospect of reducing them to a more manageable level, as we seek to negotiate this challenging period of China’s rise.

This article was originally published by the Financial Times.

Kevin Rudd is a former prime minister of Australia, President of the Asia Society Policy Institute, and Chair of IPI’s Independent Commission on Multilateralism.