Prospects of a strategic Sino-US ties high
By David Shambaugh
Updated: 2009-05-05 07:43

The Obama administration has the good fortune to inherit a generally sound Sino-American relationship - and it has moved quickly to reach out to Beijing and push the relationship forward. Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao had their first face-to-face meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in London last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has visited Beijing while her counterpart Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi has been to Washington, military-to-military exchanges have been put back on track, President Obama has accepted an invitation to pay an official visit to China in the second half of the year, and both sides are signaling their newfound "cooperative and comprehensive partnership."

The Inheritance

Over the past decade a new bipartisan consensus in favor of engagement has emerged in the US Congress and the policy community - while at a bilateral level, substantial cooperation has been achieved across a range of issues. The prior administration demonstrated sustained commitment to the relationship and worked hard to engage the Chinese over an array of bilateral, regional, and global issues.

Robert Zoellick's concept of China becoming a "responsible international stakeholder" provided the intellectual underpinnings of the Bush engagement policy. Zoellick's concept was important for three reasons. First, it called on China to assume a greater global role and responsibility for addressing a broad array of global governance issues. Second, it therefore implicitly recognized China as a global actor (if not power) and thus redefined the Sino-American relationship as a global one - not merely as a bilateral or regional Asian relationship. Third, by calling on China to be a global partner of the US, it implicitly rejected the view among the hawks in the administration that China needed to be "contained." The responsible international stakeholder concept gave rise to a deeper institutionalization of US-China relations, as it stimulated the "Senior Dialogue" between Zoellick (later Deputy Secretary Negroponte) and Executive Vice Foreign Minister (now State Councilor) Dai Bingguo. The Senior Dialogue, in turn, spawned a series of regional and functional dialogues on different parts of the world and pressing functional issues.

Prospects of a strategic Sino-US ties high

Despite the intellectual importance and practical policy implications of Zoellick's formulation, there nonetheless remained a strong contingent (mainly in the Pentagon) who argued that China needed to be "hedged" against, given its military modernization program and uncertainty about its strategic intentions (and lack of transparency of both). The latter manifested itself in strengthening of alliances in Asia, establishing non-allied military partnerships with nations all around China, and unilaterally building up US forces in the Pacific, Indian Ocean, and west coast of the continental US. Thus, despite the "engagement" element of Zoellick's vision, there remained an element of strategic hedging in Bush's China policy.

This is the dualistic policy that the Obama administration inherits. Thus far, the administration has emphasized the first dimension diplomatically (without using the Zoellick terminology), while maintaining the second dimension militarily. Even if the administration wished to reduce the element of strategic hedging, given the size and complexity of the associated budgets, programs, bureaucracies and relationships, it would take several years to substantially alter this component.

Broadening of the Strategic Agenda

Since coming to office, the Obama administration has signaled two priorities with respect to China policy.

First, it has signaled essential continuity with the previous administration, particularly the Zoellick emphasis on global cooperation. As Secretary Clinton put it upon arriving in Beijing on February 22: "The global community is counting on China and the US to collaborate, to pursue security, peace and prosperity for all." This was also made clear in her speech to the Asia Society on February 13, 2009: "You know very well how important China is and how essential it is that we have a positive, cooperative relationship. It is vital to peace and prosperity, not only in the Asia-Pacific region, but worldwide." Clinton then went on to implicitly undercut the arguments of the "strategic hedgers": "Now, some believe that China on the rise is, by definition, an adversary. To the contrary, we believe that the US and China can benefit from and contribute to each other's successes. It is in our interest to work harder to build on areas of common concern and shared opportunities."

In these key sentences, Secretary Clinton signaled both strong continuity with the Bush emphasis on Sino-American global cooperation as well as possibly deemphasizing the element of strategic hedging. While she did not use the term "responsible international stakeholder" on her visit to Beijing, Clinton did call for a "positive and cooperative relationship" with China, while en route to Beijing she called for a "comprehensive partnership." During her confirmation hearings she also twice used the formulation "positive and cooperative relationship." Both sides now characterize the relationship as a "cooperative and comprehensive partnership." While the terminology is slightly different from the Bush administration, the substance of the policy remains the same: engage China comprehensively and globally.

Second, in Beijing Secretary Clinton unveiled a second priority of the new Obama administration: a broadening of the strategic agenda with China. During her Asia visit, she reiterated several of the longstanding areas of US-China security cooperation - notably the DPRK, Iran, counterterrorism, and military-to-military exchanges. But she went further by placing four new issues on the bilateral agenda and identifying them all as strategic issues: climate change, energy security, arms control, and global financial stability.

It is unclear what exactly Clinton and the administration have in mind concerning initiating arms control talks with China, such as those being initiated with Russia. Presumably it means that they are interested in negotiating some kind of strategic arms ceilings with China. If so, the Obama administration is likely to run up against the longstanding Chinese position that the US and Russia must first radically reduce the tens of thousands of warheads in their arsenals below 1000 on each side before China (which has 400+ nuclear warheads in its arsenal, but only several dozen deployed on its 30+ ICBMs) will even consider joining into such negotiations. The US and China did initiate a dialogue on nuclear strategy in April 2008, between the two defense ministries but involving the US Strategic Command and the People's Liberation Army's Second Artillery Command. This is a dialogue the US has sought for many years. After one meeting it was suspended as part of the broader Chinese suspension of military-to-military exchanges in retaliation for the outgoing Bush administration's decision to sell $6 billion worth of arms to Taiwan in October 2008.

Resuming military-to-military exchanges is a high priority for the Obama administration, and recent bilateral discussions suggest they are slowly resuming. The Obama administration has not yet indicated whether it intends to go through with sending notification to Congress of the Bush administration's announcement of a $6 billion arms package to Taiwan. For its part, China is hoping that the sale will not go through. More broadly, the modernization of China's military is another issue on the bilateral strategic agenda.

One somewhat new issue that surfaced during Secretary Clinton's Asia tour was the possibility of closer trilateral US-China-Japan cooperation. While Clinton was in Tokyo, former US official Morton Abramowitz published a prominent article in the Asahi Shimbun. Abramowitz has long been a proponent of this idea, but there are a number of others in the US (including Kurt Campbell, Ezra Vogel, Mike Mochizuki, and this author) who believe that the time is ripe for exploring such high-level and working-level trilateral cooperation. This would not have been possible as long as Sino-Japanese relations were troubled, as they were during the Koizumi period. But since the steady improvement of bilateral ties beginning in 2007, and particularly following the successful state visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao and signing of the joint communiqu between the two governments in April 2008, the Sino-Japanese leg of the triangle has stabilized considerably.

Thus, the time is ripe for commencing both high-level meetings between the three heads of state both as standalone meetings every 18 months or so, as well as meeting together on the sidelines of regional and international meetings and the formation of lower-level intergovernmental working groups to tackle issues of common concern. Both the Chinese and Japanese governments have indicated their willingness to commence such a trilateral dialogue - now it is time for the United States to support the initiative.

There is a lengthy potential agenda for such possible collaboration, which might begin with: (1) global financial stabilization (these are, after all, the world's three largest economies); (2) air pollution and climate change; (3) joint regional maritime security in East Asia; and (4) joint search and rescue exercises. These are important issues that represent opportunities to forge trilateral cooperation. After beginning trilateral cooperation on issues such as these, the collaborative agenda can be broadened to other areas.

To be concluded

The author is professor of Political Science and International Affairs and director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University. He is also a nonresident senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Studies Program of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies, The Brookings Institution in Washington DC.

(China Daily 05/05/2009 page9)