Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

The right time to start anew

By Guo Xuetang (China Daily) Updated: 2011-05-21 07:53

China and the United States may have had an unstable bilateral relationship, but they also have great potential for cooperation.

Some experts argue that Sino-US cooperation in areas such as the economy, energy, non-traditional security and climate change will ensure stable development of bilateral relations. But their strategic mutual trust has not been consistent in the past decade.

Bilateral ties have also been found wanting in dealing with soft concerns such as economic, financial and global problems.

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For these reasons, many Chinese scholars say that the Barack Obama administration's policy toward China in 2010 was very aggressive militarily and politically.

The stagnation of Sino-US relations has made building bilateral strategic mutual trust an urgent task. Although many think the third China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue will help restore stable and cooperative relations faster, building mutual trust will still be a lengthy job.

Bilateral conflicts last year threw up many surprises. Some Americans say China has become "arrogant" and "more assertive" diplomatically, and "less biding and hiding" strategically. On the other hand, some Chinese say that even though China's growth does not pose a threat to any country, the US is trying to encircle China in a C- or U-style ring to contain it's rise, and thus forcing it to fight back. Neither of the arguments may be true, but they reveal a psychological phenomenon.

China is an emerging country today. But it used to be a prosperous and powerful nation and was invaded and plundered by foreign countries for more than a century until 1949. It still has some old "scars" such as Taiwan and the Diaoyu Islands to show. In contrast, the US is the most powerful country in the world, has been the "free world" leader for almost a century, counting from the birth of Wilsonianism, and the sole superpower for the past two decades.

It is more difficult for Chinese to forget a century of humiliation than it is for Americans to abandon their century-long leadership of the Western world. The historical burden on both sides causes the mismatch of mutual cognition (MMC) of national interests, which was the main source of conflict last year and the source of bilateral misperceptions in the long run.

The MMC is profoundly manifested in historically linked military security issues. China has lost a lot of territories and doesn't want to lose any more. That's why sovereignty, especially the reunification of Taiwan with the Chinese mainland, is the most sensitive and important issue for it in any bilateral relationship. China opposes US arms sales to Taiwan because they make Chinese reunification more difficult.

The US is not only the leader of the Western world, but also considers itself to be the "leader of the international community" by virtue of its political system and values. No wonder, it fears that China's rise could destabilize its leadership, and wants to take pre-emptive action to prevent China from growing into a military power and becoming the regional leader, not to speak of world leader.

When it comes to foreign policies of China and the US toward each other, the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) - to use a medical term - best describes their inadequate adaptation to each other in the process of building mutual trust.

The GAS is used to describe how the body adjusts with an adaptive response to stress both in the short and long terms. In Sino-US relations, the GAS finds expression in lack of mutual psychological understanding, irrational policy options and unacceptable reactions.

So the burden for change is on both sides. The two sides have to work together to eliminate the MMC, and avoid policy misunderstandings and misperceptions to gradually foster "habits of cooperation", to use a term coined by Jon Huntsman, former US ambassador to China.

First, Beijing and Washington need to reach a tacit understanding on China's rise and the US' leadership. China should look at its economic achievements and growing power with equanimity, given its increasing domestic economic and social imbalance problems. The US, on its part, has to recognize China as a strong hard power but weak soft power. China does have to share more international responsibilities, but then the US has to respect China's vital national interests.

Second, China does not have enough room for compromise in sovereignty and territorial integrity issues. The US has to understand the evolution of Chinese politics, its sovereignty and the interconnection between the East and the West. For instance, a change in US policy on Taiwan - from maintaining status quo to supporting peaceful reunification - will help China respect and appreciate US leadership. It will enhance bilateral strategic mutual trust, too.

Third, the room for cooperation in non-traditional issues is large enough for China and the US both to easily reduce the MMC. And both need to change their propensity to work against each other if they want to solve global problems effectively and comprehensively.

The author is deputy director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.

(China Daily 05/21/2011 page5)

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