Author: David Kampf
Source: FPA Features
May 14th, 2009
The United States-China partnership is more than just your average bilateral relationship between great powers -- the so-called G-2 is central to solving the world's ills. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently said that the opportunities for the two countries to "work together are unmatched anywhere in the world." While some advocate closer cooperation designed to confront transnational threats, others warn that relying too heavily on China will be counterproductive for the United States. Should the U.S. make efforts to engage China and elevate the relationship?
Last year, C. Fred Bergsten, director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, wrote an article in Foreign Affairs advocating for a G-2 approach" to steer the global governance process." He argued that cooperation between the world's two dominant economies was necessary for "effective systemic defenses against international economic challenges." The idea quickly gained momentum.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in January that global issues demand stronger ties and "the Sino-American relationship needs to be taken to a new level." Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor for U.S. President Jimmy Carter, added that "we need an informal G-2. The relationship between the U.S. and China has to be a comprehensive partnership, paralleling our relations with Europe and Japan." More recently, Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, and Justin Yifu Lin, the Bank's chief economist and senior vice president, said that "without a strong G-2, the G-20 will disappoint."
Despite this diversity of support, not everyone agrees. Elizabeth C. Economy and Adam Segal, both senior fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations, argued in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs that "elevating the bilateral relationship is not the solution." Economy and Segal wrote, "The current lack of U.S.-Chinese cooperation stems from mismatched interests, values and capabilities." Instead, "Washington should embrace a more flexible and multilateral approach." John Pomfret, of the Washington Post, warned that the U.S. is again "falling into the trap of expecting more from China than it can deliver."
What are the prospects for linking former foes in a 21st century partnership and developing a "Group of 2?" Enhancing Sino-American relations will be complicated and establishing a G-2 is easier said than done. Both the U.S. and China have their own interests and individual short-term needs. But it's difficult to identify solutions to global problems that don't require leadership from both the United States and China. Resolving today's greatest challenges -- including the worldwide recession, climate change and nuclear proliferation -- rely on these two countries.
International recovery to the global financial and economic crisis depends on America and China. The world's first and third largest economies (second and fourth if the European Union is included)are intimately linked. China holds nearly $2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, largely denominated in dollars, and the country is the world's leading investor in U.S. government debt. Whereas the United States needs to finance its stimulus plans, China is concerned about the stability of its holdings. U.S. economic growth will create stronger demand for Chinese exports. China desires a greater role in the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral organizations and in return the U.S. wants China to increase contributions (during the Group of 20 summit in London limited progress was made, including promises to reform financial institutions and give a stronger voice to rising powers). Common goals should compel shared efforts and the rest of the world needs the U.S. and China to shape the global response.
How can we tackle climate change without the two largest emitters of carbon dioxide outlining the terms? China and the United States account for over 40 percent of the world's total emissions, and they compete for access to scarce energy resources. In the past, both countries have used the other as an excuse for inaction. Looking ahead, both will need to limit their own emissions to reduce the impact of global warming and climate change. Without their participation, any international accord is toothless.
Arms control and nuclear disarmament begin with the United States and Russia. The two countries hold the majority of the world's nuclear weapons and reducing existing arsenals is critical. Negotiations between Washington and Beijing seem secondary as China possesses relatively few missiles. But China's involvement is necessary to reduce the spread of weapons of mass destruction and prevent bombs from ending up in the wrong hands. The anti-proliferation regime needs a unified global response. North Korea's weapon agenda cannot be curtailed without Chinese participation and pressure, and curbing Iran's suspected nuclear arms program will be impossible if China, particularly in its role at the United Nations Security Council, does not actively support the goal.
Some analysts fear China's emerging economic and military power will spur competition and conflict. They view China as a threat and believe the U.S. should seek to contain the country's regional influence and limit its global reach by supporting its Asian neighbors. Nevertheless, the U.S. cannot simply wait and see what kind of power China becomes, it must foster warmer ties. To ensure China's peaceful rise, the United States should actively encourage China's leaders to share responsibility for global order. It's in everyone's interest for China to become a responsible stakeholder in the international system.
The new Obama administration inherited a strong Sino-American relationship (arguably better than at any time since the Tiananmen protests in 1989). Despite military and strategic tensions, the previous administration in Washington actively sought improved ties and early indications suggest good relations will continue and possibly be enhanced. Many believe that Secretary Clinton's choice to visit Asia on her first trip abroad was an implicit recognition of the region's rise and the shift of power from the Atlantic to the Pacific. While in Beijing Clinton said, "The global community is counting on China and the U.S. to collaborate, to pursue security, peace and prosperity for all."
In April, President Barack Obama and President Hu Jintao met on the sidelines of the London G-20 summit. Before the face-to-face conversation, President Obama stressed that the "relationship between China and the United States is not only important for the citizens of both our countries, but will help to set the stage for how the world deals with a whole host of challenges in the years to come."
Both leaders emphasized their desires to build a "positive, cooperative and comprehensive" relationship and agreed to address common challenges. President Obama accepted President Hu's invitation to visit China later in 2009 and the leaders announced a "U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue," expanding on the high-level economic talks established by the Bush administration in 2006. Secretary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will lead the American side and the first round will be held this summer in Washington, DC.
It appears that the Obama administration realizes that collaboration with Beijing is essential and the relationship should be strengthened. Washington should not only engage Beijing to guarantee China has a stake in the stability of the international system, but also because answers will not be found without Chinese involvement. The United States cannot simply dictate the world's responses to transnational threats. The relationship between the U.S. and China should be defined by cooperation, not competition. Harmony, not hostility. And respect, not rivalry.
Given the shared interests and inability to address global issues alone, the U.S.-China partnership is the most important bilateral relationship in the world. Paradoxically though the critics of the G-2 idea are also correct. An elevated relationship is not a solution in itself and a recognized G-2 is unlikely to emerge. What's important is that the U.S. pushes for joint responses -- both bilateral and multilateral -- to global issues.
David Kampf is a writer and researcher based in Washington, DC. He analyzes international politics, foreign affairs and economic development, and his pieces have appeared in various publications, including China Rights Forum, African Security Review and World Politics Review. Recently, he directed communications for the U.S. Agency for International Development and President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief in Rwanda. He writes for the FPA's Rising Powers blog and can be reached here
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